Monday, January 21st, 2019

When I Was But A Wee Lad: Tales From My Dimmest Memory

One of the cheap meals my mother would make to stretch the family budget as far as it would go was hash: she’d get a cheap cut of meat from the butcher, a bag of potatoes from the store, and I think maybe some onions or celery were in there, too. She boiled and quartered the potatoes, sliced up the meat into chunks and fed every bit of it into one of those meat grinders you only see in antique stores these days, the kind you clamp to the edge of a kitchen counter and turn with a big crank. Potato, potato skins, meat, fat, gristle, whatever — it all went in. I used to help her turn the crank on the meat grinder and, if I whined a lot and promised not to stick my fingers down the chute, she would let me drop a potato or chunk of meat in the hopper.

In later years, we didn’t eat hash much. I don’t recall eating it at all after we made our final move as a family to Waupaca county, and it was more or less lost in my memory for many years until one day when I was talking to Mom as she was preparing dinner. Our dinners were almost always a meat-and-potatoes affair; I think Mom usually made an effort to include veggies of some kind, too, but I hated veggies with a passion stereotypical of adolescents, so that didn’t make any kind of impression on me. But the meat and potatoes definitely did, and what she was making that day must have triggered a memory. “Why don’t you ever make hash for dinner any more?” I asked her, seemingly out of the blue.

She stopped what she was doing and gave me a look that said, ‘You gotta be kiddin’ me.’ For just a moment, I thought she was going to be very angry with me about something.

Finally, she asked, “You … you want hash?” Now it was apparent that she wasn’t angry or hurt, she was just puzzled.

“Uh, yeah?” I answered.

“Really?”

I think I even laughed at this point. “Yeah. I thought it was good.”

She was still looking at me with genuine befuddlement, but I didn’t know what to say beyond that. Obviously, she did not like hash: not eating it, not making it. I don’t remember how that particular conversation ended, but we never spoke of hash again, and she never made it again that I know of.

Weirdly, I saw this very scene played out in a Gregory Peck movie many years later. It was “The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit,” and the scene was between Peck, playing a GI in Europe, and Marisa Pavan, playing an Italian woman Peck’s GI met during the war. Peck’s GI goes back to the Italian woman’s apartment for some *ahem* companionship, and later the woman asks Peck if he could get her some Spam. Peck looks at Pavan with the same bewilderment I saw in my mother’s face that day. “You want Spam?” he asks, after a pause, and she cheerily answers Yes, Spam or C-rations, whatever. I almost fell out of my seat when I saw that.

Hash | 6:00 am CST
Category: food & drink, Mom, O'Folks, story time
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Thursday, January 17th, 2019

If my home town is known for anything, it’s the rodeo that’s held there every year in July. I usually got a job at the rodeo to make a little extra money, selling programs or barbequed chicken, or pushing a wheelbarrow full of iced soft drinks I sold to people in the stands during the performance.

One year, I worked in a trailer that sold junk food; it was the worst job I took at the rodeo. I was the guy making the cotton candy, which is a simple but really messy, hot job. I poured colored sugar into a little pot at the top of a spindle that was mounted in the middle of a big stainless-steel tub. A motor turned the spindle at high speed, and a heating element melted the sugar, which extruded from the pot through tiny holes in the side. The melted sugar turned into floss as it hit the air and was collected against the sides of the tub. It’s a really nifty-looking effect, which is why the cotton-candy machine is usually in the window where everybody can see it.

After all the cowboys rode all the bulls and lassoed all the calves, the spectators surged out of the stands in a wave to eat grilled chicken or ribs, cob corn, hot dogs or burgers, all the food that’s customarily roasted over an open, flaming pit of charcoal in July. They came over to the junk food trailer to get sodas and sweets, and especially to get cotton candy. God knows why anybody would want to eat cotton candy on a hot night in July, but they couldn’t get enough of it. I stood hunched over that machine winding up one big, fluffy wad of floss after another without a break for what seemed like forever. Most people don’t realize how hot that machine gets, especially on a July afternoon inside an enclosed trailer. It was hot outside, too, but at least they had the breeze, and it got cooler out there after the sun went down. It only got hotter in the trailer.

At some point in the evening I caught a break, no more than a breather, really, when I could stand up, take one step back from the machine, and stretch the kinks out of my spine. A light breeze came through the tiny open window and, as I turned to face it, sweat streaming off my floss-covered features, the guy in the line just outside the sales window, who had apparently been waiting a few minutes longer than he though he should have to, glared at me and said something like, “Lookin’ for something to do?” I was too young then to think of the answer that springs to mind now: “Well, as a matter of fact, I was thinking about taking a leak in the face of a wiseass, and it looks like I’ve found one.”

gimme a break | 9:00 am CST
Category: story time
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Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

When I was but a pimply-faced young man and my pocked complexion developed one of those white-headed zits that seems to pop up overnight, as soon as my Mother caught sight of it, her response was almost reflexive, and a little bit frightening: she would back me into a corner, frame the edges of her thumbnails around either side of the zit, and s q u e e z e with increasing pressure until the ooze popped forth.

Appearing satisfied that her work in this world was done, she would back off, dusting her hands. I would spend the next hour or so trying to unscrew my expression, a deeply-contorted grimace, or did I even have to say?

I’m not sure how my Mom would like knowing that bulging white zits remind me of her. It’s the legacy she made, though.

pimple-popper | 6:00 am CST
Category: Mom, O'Folks, story time
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Monday, January 14th, 2019

Story time with Uncle Knuckles: The Goat That Ate Sean’s Hand

I don’t know why they puts goats in petting zoos, do you? Goats are really creepy-looking animals. They’re kind of skeletal, covered with boney bumps, they’ve got demon eyes, and they’re always jerking around as if their own personal invisible devil is jabbing them with a sharpened flaming stick. Yeh, let’s throw our children into a cage with hyperactive, scary-looking animals. Good idea.

But back when we were a young couple and we had a six-year-old boy who loved barnyard animals, we took a trip to the Berlin zoo, where they have a petting zoo filled with all kinds of cute little fluffy animal babies. Most of them were in small pens, but the large, open area in the middle was filled with chickens and ducks and goats and other seemingly harmless livestock. Sean wanted to pet them all.

At first, the animals had absolutely no interest in us. When we walked up to them to pet them, they walked away, not like they were afraid of us, but like they had something better to do. They were completely indifferent to being petted. Then one of us spotted a coin-operated feed dispenser and figured maybe we could catch the attention of a few animals if we had some yummy green pellets to feed them. We led Sean over to the machine, showed him how to cup his hands under the chute, dropped ten pfennig into the slot, and turned the handle.

And that’s when the goats attacked.

Cranking the handle on that machine was like ringing a dinner bell. When we turned around, every single goat in the petting zoo was rushing us like stoned teenagers trying to trample each other to get to the stage at a rock concert. I tried to keep Sean calm by casually encouraging him to offer the goats his handful of food pellets.

Big mistake. Bigger even than the idea of buying the pellets in the first place. Every one of those goats wanted to eat every pellet in Sean’s outstretched hand, and the goat that sucked Sean’s entire hand into his mouth was the winner. Sean freaked and tried to pull his hand out of there, but the goat wasn’t letting go until he was sure he got all the feed out of Sean’s hand. One of us tried to help Sean pull his hand free while the other swatted at the goat, as if that was going to discourage it. Meanwhile, every other goat was climbing over the one that was eating Sean’s hand.

When the goat was finally satisfied he got the kibble he could get out of Sean, he let go and went looking for another victim. Sean’s arm was just fine, no blood, no broken skin, but I was afraid it would take years of therapy and a keg of Zoloft to put this behind him. Parents worry that everything’s going to screw up their first kid. But it didn’t. He’s normal, or as close to normal as to make me look neurotic, which is not a very high bar to clear, now that I think about it. Sorry, Sean. I’ll come up with a better metric next time I tell this story.

when goats attack | 6:00 am CST
Category: Seanster, story time
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Sunday, January 13th, 2019

Here’s how I know the anti-vaxxers are full of shit: I got shots every week when I was a kid. Every. Single. Week. Or at least, that’s how I remember it. This was all part of the 1960’s optimism that medical science could someday wipe all disease off the face of the earth. The teachers used to show us newsreels, a primitive form of video made by shining light through crude images hand-carved in stone, or something like that. The images showed doctors inoculating children in far-flung countries, and for some reason that was why we had to get shots, too. Every week. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

My Darling B remembers it that way, too, and she was only a couple years behind me in school. It seemed like the teachers were constantly herding long lines of us into the gym, where grinning nurses in white lab coats waited with trays piled high with GREAT BIG SYRINGES! HUGE SYRINGES! WITH NEEDLES AS LONG AS YARDSTICKS! At the sight of those syringes, half the kids in the line (that would include me) would break down and wail hysterically, pathetically, unceasingly for mommy, or help, or just bawling until our faces were glazed in tears and snot. The teachers, forearmed with bales of Kleenex, worked their way up and down the line, trying against all hope to calm us, but no matter how kind or sympathetic or determined they were, they had no chance of soothing our fears, because at least one in every three kids in the gym screamed bloody murder when they got jabbed, and the blood-curdling sound of that scream not only pierced everyone’s ears and made the hairs on the backs of their necks stand up, I swear it sent shock waves through the floor that the rest of us waiting in line picked up with our feet. Try to counteract an all-encompassing effect like that by softly cooing, “there, there.”

This scene played out in elementary schools across the nation (EVERY SINGLE WEEK!). Hundreds of thousands of kids were vaccinated. Yet somehow we survived.

I have no idea what they were inoculating us against. Probably the usual: measles, mumps, diphtheria, anthrax. I didn’t know then, and I never will know. If they kept records of that stuff, I’m pretty sure the records have been shredded by now. Either that, or they were forgotten in a huge underground vault in the Utah desert. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a bunch of college-age spelunkers accidentally stumbled across a cave lined with filing cabinets filled with the vaccination records, DNA samples and microchip frequencies of millions of America’s children, took photos of the whole thing, and posted it on Instagram. What an X-Files moment that would be.

vaxed to the max | 2:57 pm CST
Category: Life & Death, random idiocy, story time
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Friday, January 11th, 2019

And on the eighth day they awoke, and the morning from the dawn unto noon they spent amidst the harvest of their home, threshing the grain from the chaff, and the woman of the house did ask unto the man:

“How much for the novelty candles, d’you think?”

And the man answereth:

“I dunno. A nickel.”

She gaveth a moment’s consideration to his council, and then she queried him, “What did they cost? A buck and a half?”

And he rolleth his eyes unto her, and deeply heaveth a great sigh, great as the winds that roil the seas. “It’s a yard sale,” saith he. “We’re trying to get people to take away our junk. Put a nickel on it, for Pete’s sake.”

And her reply was like unto his with her own eyes, and she narrowed them, tightly. “It’s not just junk. We can make some money if we price it right.”

“We oughtta price it to sell,” saith he once again.

“How about a quarter?” she queried unto him.

“Who’s gonna buy novelty birthday candles for a quarter?” he hastily spake.

“They cost a buck and a half at the store,” saith she.

“It’s a yard sale,” he spake, and testily. “You buy things for nickels and dimes at a yard sale.”

Lo, tho she seeketh his council, she did write that the cost of the candle should be two score cents and five.

And then she openeth a box of video tapes and asketh:

“How much for the tapes, d’you think?”

“Twenty-seven fifty each,” answereth he, and like a wise-ass spake.

And lo, she pretendeth not to hear him, and marked them a nickel apiece, three for a dime.

And so on, and so on, ad infinitum, glory be, hallelujah.

a yard sale | 6:00 am CST
Category: housekeeping, story time
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Monday, January 7th, 2019

One of my previous employers made me exercise three times a week. I would literally be violating a federal law if I didn’t exercise as directed. Think about that when you’re complaining about all the things your boss makes you do.

Sometimes I was allowed to exercise on my own. If the weather was good, I would ride my bike for a couple hours. If the weather sucked, I would find an unoccupied rowing machine or treadmill at the gym and crank on that for an hour or so.

Sometimes, though, we did a group thing. Usually we ran. I got pretty good at running until my knees got old.

There was this one time a bunch of us played basketball. I don’t know a thing about basketball. Well, I know one thing: the ball goes in the hoop. That’s it. I don’t know the positions they play, I don’t understand the strategy. I don’t even understand what people are talking about when they try to explain basketball to me. It’s like when people try to talk to me in a foreign language: I just grin at them like a moron until they give up.

I told the PT monitor I didn’t know anything about basketball. “I’m not saying I don’t want to play, I’m just warning you.”

“Sounds like a ringer,” somebody said.

“No, honestly,” I pleaded, “I know absolutely nothing about basketball.”

“Yeh, whatever,” the PT monitor answered. He didn’t believe me, either.

I guess I can sort of understand that, basketball being a sport that almost everybody follows religiously. It would be like someone telling you he didn’t know a thing about breathing, or something else everybody knew about as if it was second nature.

There were five of us to start, so we broke up into teams of three and two. I was on the team of two. “Take the ball out,” the PT monitor said, tossing the ball to me.

“Take it out where?” I asked, so he explained it to me. Apparently I had to start the game by standing out of bounds and throwing it to him, which I did. Then I ran down to the other end of the court, because I was the only other guy on the team. It seemed to make sense. I was just past the mid-court line when he threw it to me, and I figured this was as good a time as any to take a shot, so I fired it in the general direction of the hoop … and it went in.

And not just the first time. I shot most of the time from mid-court, because if I got closer to the hoop, I missed every time, but from mid-court I had about a 50-50 chance of making it. I think I sunk about six shots that way.

Which only solidified everyone’s belief that I was a damn liar when I said I didn’t know anything about playing basketball. “Ringer” was my nickname for a while after that.

ringer | 4:20 am CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, story time
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Saturday, September 8th, 2018

My hair’s quite long now, although when I say “quite long,” I mean it’s grown past the top of my collar in back, covers my ears, and hangs in my eyes if I don’t comb it back.

That’s as long as I’ve ever worn it in my life.  I used to wear it about as long while I was in junior high and high school, then cut it a bit shorter while I was in college.  The reason?  There was a barber on my college campus who would cut my hair the way I asked him to.  In my experience, this kind of barber is a rare bird indeed.

The first barber I remember going to was the kind who asked me what I wanted when I sat down, then hung a sheet around my neck and did a rough approximation of what I told him without ever stopping to ask if he was doing what I liked.  What I ended up with was his idea of what a teenage boy’s hair should look like.  Keep in mind this guy was born in the 1930s.

This has happened at virtually every barber I’ve ever tried: I sit down, they ask what I want, I give them what I think is a description that’s good enough to start with, and that’s the last time they ask before giving me the haircut they think I ought to have. I end up looking nothing like I did when I came in.  Getting my hair cut is nearly always an unsatisfying experience.

There was this one guy I went to a couple years ago who did a great job on my hair.  Weirdly, barbering wasn’t his lifelong career.  He told me he had sold electron microscopes all his life and, after he retired, he took up barbering to keep busy.  He was really good at it, too.  He was one of those  people who could effortlessly keep a conversation going and, while he did, he would continually ask me about whether he was cutting my hair the way I liked.  Eventually I saw him often enough that he knew how I liked it, and we just had interesting conversations after that.  And of course he stopped barbering and I haven’t had a decent haircut since.

But back to my college campus barber.  He was a classic.  I think his name was Jerry.  He didn’t talk much, but he knew what to ask, he got my haircut just right, and after one or two visits he didn’t have to ask how I liked it.  That was the first time in my life getting my hair cut wasn’t a huge pain in the ass.

For the middle twenty years of my life, I was in the military, where I was prohibited by federal regulation from letting my hair grow longer than an inch and a quarter.  During those years, I didn’t think of a visit to the barber as “getting my hair cut,” but rather as “getting my head mowed.”  Cutting hair is a learned skill.  Mowing hair is not.  The approaches used by military barbers to mow hair differed a bit, but most of them simply put a number three comb on an electric clipper and swept it up my head from the sides to the top.  When all my hair was more or less the same length, they would switch out the number three comb for a number two and work on the sides, then blend the back and sides with a number one comb.  I was so sure this took no skill at all that, for the last five years I was in the military, I did this to myself in the mirror once a week.  As far as I could tell, I got about the same results.

When I got out of the military, I did what most guys do: grew a beard and let my hair grow.  When my hair got a little too shaggy, I’d visit a barber to see how he did with it.  Or her; I’ve been to almost as many women and men to get my hair cut.  I must’ve visited dozens of barbers around town by now, but I can think of just three who cut my hair in a way that I was really happy with.

After a couple years with the beard, I ditched it, but kept getting my hair cut.

For the past two or three years, getting my hair cut has been a chore that I haven’t looked forward to, so two or maybe three months ago I stopped doing it.  The hair in the back is now so long that it’s got an amazing flip to it that I never knew it had.  I have to admit I like it.  If I keep growing it out, I have the feeling that I’ll eventually have to find a stylist to maintain it.  Or maybe not.  I saw an older guy at a tavern the other day with hair as white as new-fallen snow that fell past his shoulders.  He’d obviously been growing it out for years.  It didn’t appear to be styled at all, just combed and brushed, and it looked pretty good.

hairy | 8:51 am CST
Category: barber, story time | Tags:
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Sunday, October 22nd, 2017

Here’s a weird confession, and it’s weird not because it’s going to shock anybody or change the history of the world; it’s weird because it’s hardly a confession at all. I really like the songs of KC and the Sunshine Band. I don’t like them so much that I ever bought any of their records, not even so much as a single, but I turn up the volume and sing along whenever one of their songs is played on the radio. I even do the disco-dance finger-pointing thing. It’s muscle memory at this point. Why fight it?

I’ve always known these were kinda cheesy songs, but you know what? They’re easy to dance to, even for a guy with two left feet like me, and girls loved to dance to them, so I got out there on the dance floor and danced my brains out. And now, forty years later (geeze Louise!), I can still get My Darling B to do a fun little disco-like jig in the kitchen when I’m Your Boogie Man comes up in my playlist, and my friends and I do a sing-along when Shake Your Booty comes on the car radio. After all this time, KC still inspires us to have fun. How great is that?

Random bit o’ trivia: When the song Get Down Tonight was popular (1975), the cheerleaders at our high school wanted to sing it at a rally before a game but were forbidden from uttering the line “make a little love.” The line was apparently considered way too scandalous as written, so they left out the word “love” to satisfy whoever was doing the forbidding, which to my mind was way more suggestive.

sunshine | 9:37 am CST
Category: entertainment, music, play, story time
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Monday, February 27th, 2017

I ate a whole package of Oreos once, just to see if I could. Which was silly. Of course I could. Anybody could. The question is, should you? And the answer is, not unless you like feeling sick as a dog for the rest of the day.

I don’t, but it’s not like that’s the only time I’ve done something like that, sad to say. Do you remember those malted milk balls that came in a quart-sized milk carton? I don’t remember how much that thing weight, but I ate a whole carton of those once. I think that was before the Oreos incident. I ate the Oreos when I was on my first tour of duty in the Air Force. The malted milk balls were much earlier, probably when I was still in high school. I ate a lot of junk in high school. Everybody did, right?

And once I drank a six-pack of Mountain Dew in one afternoon, again just for the experience. I lived in a very small town. There wasn’t a lot to do. I remember finishing that first can and thinking, “Hey, I could go for another one.” And when I finished the second can I thought, “I could have one more.” After the third can, I couldn’t tell you what I was thinking, other than maybe, “I feel stupid enough to drink the rest.” I can tell you that the buzz I got from drinking six cans of Mountain Dew is not something I ever want to experience again.

The stomach ache, though, apparently was something I wanted to experience over and over, because the malted milk balls and the Oreos came after. I haven’t repeated either of those experiences, but I was thinking about this today because I recently discovered that a nearby grocery store sells dark chocolate malted milk balls in the bulk aisle, and they are sooo good! I have to be careful to buy only a small handful at a time, because once I start eating them, I don’t stop until my stomach hurts, which is probably not the most healthy thing for me, or anybody else, for that matter.

insanity | 7:21 pm CST
Category: food & drink, random idiocy, story time
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Sunday, December 21st, 2014

Hello, boys and girls! Welcome! Welcome to Story Time with Unkle Knuckles. Gather round and I’ll tell you the story of how Silly Putty came to be banned from our Christmas stockings. Ready? Let’s begin.

This would’ve been so many years ago that Sean was still a toddler and Tim was no more than a notion. Back then, my Mom and Dad lived in the O-Folk Ancestral Manse, far, far away in The Frozen North. In the year which our story takes place, we made the long voyage there to spend Christmas day with them.

In Sean’s stocking, he found one of the classic toys: A plastic egg with a blob of Silly Putty inside. It was the first Silly Putty he’d ever played with, so we showed him all the nifty stuff he could do with it: Bounce it like a ball, break it like a piece of china, and copy a panel of Calvin & Hobbes off the funny pages. That last one was the corker: He was having such a good time that we left him to play and didn’t give the Silly Putty another thought.

Long after we had opened all our gifts and the morning had lapsed into the time of day when we were all blobbing out on a sofa or were slouched in an overstuffed chair, my Dad decided he had to get another cookie or a drink from the kitchen. When he tried to rise from his chair, he discovered that the chair wouldn’t let him go! He sank back into the chair, then tried to get up again. The chair seemed to be following him! He tried once more and finally bulled his way into an upright position.

Good thing the chair he’d been sitting in was one with a removable seat cushion, because the cushion was well and truly glued to his butt. The glue? Silly Putty, of course. As we all learned that day, if you sit on a blob of Silly Putty, your body heat makes it spread itself evenly across your whole butt, and if you’re wearing pants, it works itself so deeply into the fabric that it’s never going to come out. Same with the fabric of a chair cushion, if you happen to be sitting on one. The only way Dad could get away from that chair cushion was to take his pants off.

And that’s why Silly Putty was never seen again in the stockings of the littlest O-Folk.

silly | 5:56 pm CST
Category: Dad, O'Folks, Seanster, story time
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Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Pete OkonskiMy family lived in Green Bay until about 1967 in a little two-bedroom rental at 819 South Roosevelt Street. (Happily, the house is still there.) How I still recall that useless piece of trivia is one of those mysteries of memory that no one will ever explain to me so that it makes sense.

Although it’s not so hard when there are plenty of photos like this one in our photo album. This is my brother Pete. He can’t be more than three years old in this photo, but that little guy had some legs on him. We grew up in that legendary time when parents sent their kids outside to play all day long without worrying about whether or not they’d be snatched off the street by a deviant or a cannibal or a human trafficker. I used to run up and down and all around the block for hours without raising an eyebrow, as long as I ran straight home when I heard my mom calling. If I couldn’t hear my mom calling because I was too far away, or in someone else’s house, one of the other kids would and the word would quickly be relayed to me. That’s how it worked.

Pete was a special kind of wanderer, though. Mom would send him out in the yard to play and five minutes later he was nowhere to be seen. An hour later he might be as far away as Saint Paul, Minnesota. The kid could move fast, and he stayed gone long after word was out on the street that his mother was calling him. Even back then, that worried my mom. After the second or third time she had to mount a search party to find the little booger, she started labelling him to make him easier to find.

They used to sell denim patches with a sticky backing that you could melt over the torn knees of kids’ jeans with an iron. Mom would cut them into quarters and write Pete’s name and address on them with an indelible marker, then iron them onto his jackets, his shirts, and his pants. She used to joke that she ironed them on his underwear just to make sure. I thought she used to write our phone number on them, too, but it’s clearly missing from the label in this photo.

the wanderer | 2:23 pm CST
Category: O'Folks, Pete, story time
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Friday, August 8th, 2014

Mom & Pete on the toboggan runFor a couple years, my family lived in Marquette, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It snows there fourteen months out of the year, so everybody knew how to catch fish by cutting a hole in the ice, and every family owned at least one toboggan. I just love that word. I could say it all day. Toboggan toboggan toboggan. Toboggan. So much fun.

We had a toboggan. Here’s a photo of it. I believe that’s my brother Pete in front with a great big smile on his face and my mother in back, holding the wings of toboggan in her vise-like grip to keep Pete safely tucked under its curled-back staves.

If memory serves, the photo was taken somewhere near Ishpeming. I think it might have been on a hill where there were several ski jumps. This isn’t one of them. It’s even crazier than a ski jump. That track that the toboggan is running down is a sheet of ice polished smooth by the passage of hundreds of toboggans that went before. There are two wooden rails on either side, as you can see, to keep the toboggan going straight down the hill, and a good thing, too, because the toboggan and all its passengers are going about a hundred twenty miles per hour by the time they get halfway down.

The way this gizmo worked was, you took your toboggan into that little hut in the background and threw it onto a table between a couple of short fences, which you can just barely see outlined against the window in the back of the hut. Then you climbed aboard the toboggan, and once everyone had a death grip on it, a guy in the hut would lift up one end of the table, which tipped over like a teeter-totter until the low end clacked into the groove at the bottom of the open door. The short fences on the table kept your toboggan lined up perfectly with the icy track outside. As the table was now at a thirty-degree angle and there was nothing to hold the toboggan back, it and everyone on board went VOOM! out the door of the hut and screaming down the chute at terrifying speeds.

When you finally came to at stop, somewhere near Wausau, you picked up the toboggan and carried it in-line back to the top of the hill to do it again, cackling with glee.

toboggan | 8:37 pm CST
Category: Mom, O'Folks, Pete, random idiocy, story time
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Friday, May 2nd, 2014

All I needed was eight bags of Fritos, the snack-size bags that you can grab off the shelf at the gas station. I thought I could get them at the local Copps store down the corner because it’s just down the road and, well, because it’s a grocery store. Seemed like a no-brainer. But no matter where I looked in the mile-long aisle of snack foods, all I could find were giant-sized bags with enough Fritos in them to feed an entire kindergarten class for a week. I must’ve gone up and down that aisle half a dozen times before I gave up, went to the gas station across the street, and … didn’t find any Fritos. Lots of snack chips, no Fritos. My shopping list was very specific. They had to be Fritos. At the next gas station there were only five bags of Fritos on the shelf. “I need three more of these,” I said to the gal at the checkout. “Any chance you have more in the back?” She went to look, came back empty-handed; no joy. I paid for the five bags and went on. Finally found all the Fritos I needed at the next gas station. and that’s how I spent my evening, grocery shopping at every gas station in Monona.

Fritos | 6:32 am CST
Category: daily drivel, random idiocy, story time
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Sunday, April 20th, 2014

You know how people say there’s literally nothing you can’t get from the internet? I’m literally starting to believe it. My Darling B just bought a case of hummus chips on the internet last week.

Backtracking just a little bit: There’s this snack food called hummus chips that she simply adores, and when I say “adores,” I mean she scarfs them down with a passion you don’t normally see except in teenaged girls squealing with pleasure at the sight of their favorite celebrity boy on the cover of Teen Beat, assuming Teen Beat is still a thing and that you know what is. Put in a more universally understandable way way, all the Jane Austin fans who live or have ever lived don’t give their idol one-tenth of the kind of love that B holds in her heart for this particular snack food.

And hummus chips are just what you think they are: the brown goop derived from mixing chickpeas and olive oil, extruded at high pressure from the orifice of an assembly-line machine into vats of boiling canola oil, scooped out, bagged up and sold as health food because, hey, hummus! Can’t be bad, can it?

But that’s not why B buys it. She buys it because of that passion thing I mentioned. Trouble is, there’s exactly one store in town where she can find them on sale, and that place doesn’t always have them when we stop. (Sorry, the terms of our non-disclosure agreement forbid me from mentioning the name of the store, the street it’s on or even which city it’s in.)

When the chips are all sold out, this makes B very sad, except for the last time we visited the store and found nothing at all but a gap where the chips should have been. That time she decided to do something about it, but she didn’t ask to see the manager to ask him when they were expecting the next shipment and would he pretty please hold back a couple of bags for her and, just to make sure he did, batting her eyes at him to render him helpless to her feminine charms.

No, instead she logged in to Amazon dot come as soon as she got home, searched for hummus chips, found them and ordered a case. A case. And they were delivered to our doorstep within 48 hours. Twelve bags of hummus chips in a displace case inside an Amazon.com shipping box. This is a thing you can do now. Amazing.

cravings | 12:50 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, My Darling B, O'Folks, story time, this modern world
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Sunday, April 13th, 2014

We had a visit from the axe murderer the other night. We were both very sure he was there. He creeps into our house every so often with his double-bladed war axe that drips with the blood of his victims, at least one of which he killed just minutes before he broke into our little red house, and he tiptoes across the floor silent as a cat until he bumps into an end table, or knocks a book off a shelf, or steps on that creaky floorboard in front of the closet, waking us up. Then he melts into the shadows and waits for us to fall asleep again, because the axe murderer will kill you only if you fall asleep. If we lie awake and stare at the bedroom doorway, he won’t kill us. It’s a physical law, like gravity.

A couple books fell off the dresser in the guest room and landed face-down on the floor (I discovered the next morning), making a sound like a gunshot that woke me with a jump from deep within a dream. When I realized it was dark I was puzzled, because the first thought that went through my head was that My Darling B must have knocked over a book by her bedside. She’s got a couple dozen going at once, most standing on edge on the floor, and they make that noise when she reaches for them and knocks one or two over. But it was dark, as I said, and she was lying absolutely still beside me, holding her breath, because, you know, the monsters can’t see you if you hold your breath and don’t move. You’re invisible.

I broke the spell by blurting out, “What was that?”

“Did you hear it, too?” she asked.

“What?”

“That noise. I thought I dreamed it.”

“I thought you knocked over a book.”

“No, I was asleep.”

We laid there a minute or two longer. Neither one of us had mentioned the axe murderer, but we were both waiting for something like the bedroom door to swing shut, revealing his hiding spot and trapping us within what would be known afterwards as The Scene Of The Crime.

“I’m going to see what it was,” I said, and snapped on my bedside light.

I walked all through the house but couldn’t find anything that looked like it had fallen, so I went back to bed without an explanation. That’s bad. If I’d found a book on the floor, never mind how it got there, it would explain the noise. Not finding the book meant the axe murderer was still in the house.

“Find anything?” B asked hopefully.

“Nope, couldn’t find a thing,” I said as nonchalantly as I could. “I’m sure it was just a book falling. Couldn’t have been anything else.” 

But we both knew otherwise, because we both laid there wide-awake for at least an hour, waiting for the axe to fall. When it didn’t, I fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion. B did, too, and I expect she woke up suddenly just as I did when she knew she was asleep. But neither one of us was killed in our sleep, so that meant the axe murderer must have left. He does that, too: Tiptoes out of the house when we ruin his evil plan by waking up and talking out loud.

a visit from the axe murderer | 7:53 am CST
Category: daily drivel, random idiocy, sleeplessness, story time
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Friday, August 9th, 2013

I went to the barber shop to get my hair cut. I’d been going to a local shop on the main street, which I’d rather do than go to the chain store down on the corner, but I’d like it a lot more if I knew all the ins and outs of barber shop etiquette.

Here’s what I mean: There are four chairs at the local shop. Usually, there are also four barbers working on Saturday morning, one of the two days off when I can get to the barber. The first time I went there, every barber was busy so I took a seat and waited for the next available chair. The chair on the end came open in just a few minutes and the barber, I think I’ll call him Rob, nodded to me, so I went over, sat down and he cut my hair. Cut it pretty well, too.

The next time I went in, everybody was busy again, so I took a seat and waited. As it happened, Rob finished up with the guy who was in his chair and, after they’d settled the tab, Rob waved me over. I looked over at the guy waiting beside me. “This fellah was here first,” I said, but Rob smiled and waved me over and the guy said it was okay, so climbed into Rob’s chair and got a good hair cut.

The third time I went in, it was once again very busy. As it happened, I was also very busy, meaning I wanted to get my hair cut as soon as possible so I could get home again and back to work at whatever project was waiting for me, so when a chair came open, I looked over at Rob, saw he was occupied and plunked myself down in the available seat. Rob didn’t say anything to me then. He didn’t say anything to me afterwards, either. He didn’t offer to cut my hair ever again after that, either.

I had transgressed the unwritten law. Thou shalt not offer thy head to any but thy usual barber, or something like that. It’s always been like that wherever I go. You get a barber, you have to stay with that barber forever. Switching to another barber is just asking for The Old Stink Eye.

I don’t go there any more. I go to a different salon that’s closer to the office building where I work so it’s easier for me to schedule a cut after quitting time, but the last time I scheduled a hair cut I had to make an appointment with somebody besides the person who had cut my hair before that because I would have had to wait two weeks to get an appointment with her and I couldn’t wait that long, so I tried somebody new. I still don’t understand barbershop etiquette but I understand it well enough to know that I’ll never be able to get her to cut my hair again. I think.

haircut | 7:37 pm CST
Category: barber, story time | Tags:
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Sunday, August 4th, 2013

We woke last night to the sound of screaming. The weather was so mild that we left all the windows open, so we could clearly hear what sounded like at least two people, maybe three or more screaming their heads off somewhere down the block. B said later she was scared it was some kind of domestic violence that had spilled over into the street. It sounded that crazy.

She jumped out of bed and went to the bathroom window to see if she could spot what was going on. As it turned out, she could. Three people, maybe old enough to be roaring drunk, maybe not, were stumbling down the middle of the street shouting “SILVER EAGLES!” at the tops of their lungs. The Silver Eagles is the name of the local high school football team. It’s also the name of a neighborhood bar, so it’s not entirely clear who they were rooting for. Regardless, they were more interested in waking up as many people as they could while they walked home than they were in promoting sports or their local bar.

Be careful what you wish for, I always say. While I laid in bed waiting for them to pass out of earshot, My Darling B surprised the hell out of me when she belted out the mostly rhetorical question, “WILL YOU DUMBSHITS SHUT THE HELL UP?” into the street from the bathroom window.

To my even greater surprise, they shut the hell up. I love My Darling B. She has awesome superpowers.

dumbshits | 8:00 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, My Darling B, O'Folks, story time
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Saturday, July 13th, 2013

We bought a sofa sleeper yesterday evening from a salesperson who wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer.

We already knew what we wanted because we’d stopped by the same store the day before, talked to a different salesperson, looked at catalogs, sat on a couple of display models, then went home and, after measuring the space where the sofa sleeper would go to make sure we weren’t buying something that was one inch too wide, narrowed our choices down to two models and drove back to the store the next day to put in an order.

Some salespersons can tell when your mind’s already made up. The smart ones will just whip out the papers, show you where to sign and let you go because they know better than to spoil an easy sale.

Then there are the salespersons who can see that your mind’s made up but feel they’re not doing their job if they don’t whip out their little song and dance routine anyway. Weirdest episode with a salesperson I’ve experienced: We were shopping for cars, decided that the Ford Escort LX station wagon was the car for us, even knew the size of the engine and the color we wanted. Went to a dealership and told the first salesman who pounced on us exactly what we were looking for. He wanted us to take a test drive. Informing him that we’d already taken several test drives and repeating exactly what we wanted, color and all, he listened with some impatience before insisting that we should take one on a test drive. In a friendly yet firm tone we said yet again that we’d already been on a test drive. We were there to buy one. Now. That’s when he turned and, saying something like, “Well, if you don’t want to take a test drive, then I don’t know why I’m even talking to you,” he walked away from us. I swear on my mother’s life I am not making that up.

Finally, there are salespeople who cannot tell that your mind is made up and plow ahead with their sales pitch no matter how bluntly you tell them to just sell us the damned thing already. That was the salesperson we got last night. When we showed her the sofa we wanted to buy, she couldn’t stop talking about some other customer who loved that sofa so much, the styles the other customer looked at before settling on one, the fabrics the other customer looked at and what she finally ordered, blah blah blah etc etc etc oh my effing god she just wouldn’t shut up about that other customer. And when she ran off once to see if the other customer’s sofa had arrived in the warehouse, I very nearly asked for the manager.

So it took a little while to drag her over to the customer service counter where we could look at fabrics. That went on for about twice as long as it should have, too, because she had to trot out a bunch of the color swatches that the other customer looked over, and the salesperson had to throw in her own suggestions to boot. My Darling B played along for a bit. I’m boring, or have no imagination at all when it comes to furniture. Sofas, to me, should be one overall color, preferably dark to hide the popcorn butter stains that we’ll inevitably leave in the middle of it. I pointed at a neutral gray swatch and stood by my choice throughout the fabric selection ordeal. Oddly, that’s what we ended up getting.

And that was it. We were done. The salesperson seemed to want to talk about it a little bit more, but we didn’t, so she got out a ticket and wrote it up, pausing occasionally to point out that we could get the feet stained a different color, for instance. Nope. The standard dark stain on the feet will do just fine, thank you. When we got to that point, we got out of there without too much more trouble, even though she tried to sell us something else on the way out. We finally escaped by gnawing our own legs off.

sleeper | 12:14 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, Our Humble O'Bode, story time
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Friday, May 3rd, 2013

I like to ride my bike to work, but I’ve always been a little skittish about it. I’m a fair-weather cyclist. I’ll ride when it’s sunny and warm out, but when the sky’s overcast, or the weatherman’s calling for more than a thirty percent chance of rain, I opt for the dry, warm safety of the O-Mobile.

The thing I’ve noticed on the days I pick the safe option is that, nine times out of ten it ended up not raining that day. I’d feel pretty good about my choice as I was driving in, but on the way home when everyone else was walking around in their shirt sleeves enjoying what turned out to be a beautifully sunny day, I’d be kicking myself. Figuratively speaking, of course. Pretty hard to kick yourself when you’re sitting in a car.

And that’s why I chucked the safest option yesterday morning and rode my bike to work, even though the forecast was calling for rain. I believed the forecast, by the way. The sky was thickly overcast with clouds the color of iron, it was cold and I had no doubt that rain would fall at some time during the day, but I was determined to believe that it would not fall during the crucial hour that I rode to work and the hour after work when I was heading home.

I made it to work just fine. Not even a sprinkle to dampen my clothes. And that’s the most critical thing, really. Could there be a a more effective way than getting soaked through with rain to make office work more miserable than it already is? Somehow, I don’t think so.

I thought I was going to be just fine on the way home, too. I had to pick up a few things, but the bakery and the grocer’s were on the way, and I was less than five minutes in each. By the time I got to Olbrich Park, though, it had started to sprinkle, and not the sprinkle of a passing cloud. More the sprinkle of a cloud that is warning you there is much, much more to come. As indeed there was.

By the time I reached Cottage Grove Road, the clouds had finished their throat-clearing and were belting out a bitchen blues tune that made me wail right along with them. The words to the song are not suitable for mixed company and I don’t remember all of them now that I’m warm and comfortable, but I remember that it was mostly just one word repeated again and again. I stuck a pronoun in occasionally just to emphasize that it was my own situation I was very unhappy with.

There was an especially heavy downpour just after I crossed the line into Monona and started down the home stretch, because when the universe flips you off, it figures Go Big Or Go Home. This was about when the river of ice water that was running down my back and damming up behind my belt finally broke through. Some say the devil rules a land of fire, some say ice. I’ve felt the icy cold hand of the devil reach down the back of my pants and grab my man-parts, so I can confirm that he’s not about fire.

I’d been pedaling so furiously through the rain and the wind that when I finally reached the shelter of Our Humble O’Bode only forty minutes had passed, and that included the two stops I made to pick up dinner. I peeled out of my wringing-wet clothes just inside the front door and left them there in a sodden heap until after I took a hot, hot shower.

Could’ve been worse, as it turned out. B said she went through hail on the way home.

great big cosmic f u | 6:23 am CST
Category: bicycling, commuting, daily drivel, hobby, story time, work
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Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

The snow is gone, I’m happy to report. I went for a long walk yesterday on my lunch break and the only snow I saw was those big piles that get heaped up along the edges of parking lots by the guys with the snow plows on their pickup trucks, but it doesn’t even look like snow because of all the dirt and gravel and dog shit and orange cones and bicycles and et cetera that gets rolled up together with the snow. Because of that, it’s officially garbage. It doesn’t even count as snow.

The rest of the landscape was gloriously snow-free, so of course it was a mess. Meltwater was running and pooling everywhere, especially in what was once the grass but is now one vast expanse after another of mucky quicksand. If I ventured experimentally off the sidewalk in any direction my shoes sank almost immediately into it, so I stuck to the pavement where I could make good time walking up to Willy Street, over to Saint Vinnie’s, then down to the river and back to the office.

snow-free | 6:01 am CST
Category: daily drivel, story time
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Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

I have itchy face.

I woke up with a little tic tugging at my eyebrow, rubbed it away, then got up to do the other thing I always have to do when I wake up in the middle of the night: go to the bathroom. The tic came back while I was sitting there, but in the other eyebrow this time. I was rubbing that one out as I tottered back to bed. Everything seemed to be fine as I climbed under the covers and found a comfortable position to fall back to sleep.

A slight, almost imperceptible itch teased at my left cheek. I tried to ignore it, because once you start paying attention to these things they tend to multiply, but it wouldn’t go away so finally I brushed my fingers across it a couple times. I was okay for a couple minutes until the tic came back.

It didn’t really feel like a tic this time. It felt like one of my bug antennas was doing a little hula dance. Over the years a few of the hairs in my eyebrows have mutated from my normal, short eyebrow hairs into freakishly long stalks that tend to stick out and, to make themselves even more pronounced, point slightly upward. I’ll probably end up with Andy Rooney eyebrows, but for now I just have the bug antennas. Weirdly, I seem to be the only one who can’t see them. Well, I can, but not until they look like something growing out of the head of a cockroach. My Darling B often sees them before I do, though. She lets me know when they get too funny-looking so I can get out the hedge clippers and give them a trim. If she doesn’t, and they’re not at least a foot long, then the only time I notice them is when they brush against something, or they do a little twirly-whirly. I’ve never seem them actually twirl, but it feels like that’s what they’re doing, and when they do I’ll grab them with a tweezers and yank them out by the roots because, man, does that bug the crap out of me.

I didn’t want to get out of bed to tweezer my bug hairs so I made do with giving them a good scratch with the end of my fingers, hoping that would settle them down, and for the moment it seemed to. The itch on my cheek came back, though, and after I scratched that, my forehead felt a little itchy, so I scratched that, too.

Then my eyelashes felt like they were tangled. I blinked my eyes a couple times to see if that would untangle them but they still felt tangled. I know they weren’t. I know they only felt tangled and the only real tangling going on was in my head, just like my bug antenna eyebrows weren’t really twirling, but the only thing I could do to make them feel like they were untangled was to rub them with my fingers.

Okay, deep breath. Relax. Back to sleep.

Nope. Felt like there were bugs in my hair. Don’t know here that idea came from. Maybe the “bug” from bug antenna eyebrows. Whatever. I had to scratch that. Can’t ignore bugs in the hair. Can’t make them go away by scratching, either. Scratching only makes it worse. Only napalm gets rid of bugs in the hair, or getting B to shoot me in the face, which she probably wanted to do by that time to stop me from fidgeting. Well, I knew by then I wasn’t going to simply fall back asleep any time soon, so I rolled out of bed and got comfortable on the sofa where I could scratch my head for as long as it took to make all the little tics and itches go away. And drivel. Got to drivel it, or it didn’t happen.

itchy & scratchy | 2:36 am CST
Category: daily drivel, My Darling B, O'Folks, story time
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Saturday, March 30th, 2013

It was casual Friday and Cindy, one of my coworkers, came dressed in a baggy t-shirt with day-glo peace symbols printed all over it. When I ran into her at the copy machine I asked her, “Were you ever on Laugh-In?”

“What’s that?” she asked.

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In? You’ve never seen it?”

“No, what is it? It sounds good.”

“Comedy show. Lots of funny people cracking jokes. Ruth Buzzi. Arte Johnson. Goldie Hawn.”

“Oh, I love Goldie Hawn!”

“But you never saw her on Laugh-In?”

“No, I’ve never seen that.”

Judy, another one of my co-workers and apparently a little closer to my age, was at the mail cubbies nearby and chuckled as she listened in. “I think that may be a little before her time,” she commented.

“You remember Laugh-In?” I asked her. She nodded. And then we did what old people do when they talk about their favorite TV and movie stars: We compared notes to see if we could figure out which of the cast members from the show was still alive. Cindy wandered away during this part of the conversation, proving she really isn’t old enough to remember Laugh-In.

“You know, I can still remember when I was the baby around here,” Judy remarked after Cindy left.

“It sneaks up on you, doesn’t it?” I answered. “The other day, Carolann mentioned that she graduated from high school in 1997. I couldn’t help thinking: By 1997, I’d graduated high school, graduated college, finished basic training, been sent to England, Denver and Berlin, gotten married and had a seven-year-old son!”

Later, toward the end of the day, I was finishing up some paperwork at my desk when I happened to look down and saw something odd in the salt-and-pepper pattern of the carpeting. When I bent down to pick at it, a piece of plastic popped out of the pile, so I picked it up and dropped it into the palm of my hand. It was one of those little black bits of confetti you can buy at a novelty store that says “Over The Hill!” As if my conversation earlier hadn’t already made that clear, the universe had to flip me a great big cosmic F.U. to top it off.

over the hill | 7:10 am CST
Category: daily drivel, damn kids!, office work, story time, work
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Friday, March 29th, 2013

Many many moons ago I drove my lemon yellow Volkswagen bus from Colorado to California to visit my brother. I drove south from Denver to Albuquerque and then, in spite of every lesson I learned from Bugs Bunny about taking a left turn there,* I turned right, drove all the way across Arizona on old Route 66, entered California through the Mojave Desert and kept on going until I got to the Pacific coast. The drive north up Highway One to Carmel remains one of the greatest behind-the-wheel trips of my life.

While I was waiting at a stoplight in Carmel, a kid who looked to be about fourteen or fifteen years old stepped up to the curb, looked up the street, then looked at me. I don’t know if you’ve ever been privileged to ride in the cab of a Volkswagen bus. If you have, then you know that you are not far away from whatever is going on just outside the car. You are, in fact, sitting in front of the front wheels. Your feet are inches from the front bumper. All this to say, when someone is standing just outside the window looking at you, you can’t pretend that you’re invisible because you’re in a car. You are so close to one another that it would be rude.

So when this kid looked at me, I figured he was waiting for me to give him some kind of sign that it was okay to cross in front of me, even though I was waiting for the light. California was like that. When I drove up Highway One, I must’ve passed dozens of Volkswagens going the other way. The driver of every single one of those Volkswagens waved at me as I went past. It was like finding out I was in a club that I didn’t even know about until I got there.

There I was, waiting at a corner in Carmel, California, for a green light, the kid on the corner looking at me expectantly, and me thinking that I ought to give him some kind of sign … or something. So I extended my right hand and swept it across the dashboard in a gesture that, from my point of view, meant, Go ahead, or Safe to cross, or maybe even, I won’t run over you until you get to the middle of the street. From where he stood, though, the gesture apparently meant, Going my way? because he stepped off the curb, opened the passenger door and jumped in.

I was so stunned that the only thing I could think to say was, “Where you going?”

“Just three or four blocks up,” he answered.

Green light.

“Well, okay then,” I said, put the bus in gear and drove on.

I don’t remember whether or not we talked about anything. If we did, it couldn’t have been much. He really didn’t want to go that far. About four blocks up the road he pointed at the corner, said, “Right here’s fine.” I pulled up at the curb, he said thanks and jumped out.

And that was the first time I gave a ride to a stranger.

*When I started to write the part about driving south to Albuquerque, the first thing that popped into my head was a quote from Bugs Bunny: “I knew I shoulda taken a left toin at Albakoikee!” It wasn’t until after I finished the story that I opened Google and typed “Bugs Bunny should have.” It autofilled “turned left.” bliss!

hop in | 6:03 am CST
Category: daily drivel, O'Folks, play, story time, The O-Mobile, travel | Tags:
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Thursday, March 28th, 2013

I suffered the biggest culture shock of my life when the Air Force transferred me from the peace and quiet of RAF Digby in northern England to the ear-shattering jet noise and chaos of Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. The culture of the Air Force in the two places, and the culture of the host countries, were so completely different from one another I was nearly catatonic.

There were about a half-dozen Air Force goobers stationed at Digby, most of them airmen. I was a technical sergeant. But the station and the base were so quiet, dare I say even sleepy, that I didn’t have much to do in the way of supervising anybody, as tech sergeants are expected to do in other places. I supervised a staff sergeant, and he supervised the airmen. Two years of that left me fat, dumb and happy, if a six-foot-tall guy who weighs 155 can even metaphorically be described as “fat.” (Sadly, there’s no question about the “fat” part.)

I don’t know how many Air Force goobers there were at Misawa but I was immediately put in a position where I was responsible for about two dozen of them, and by “responsible” I mean that I was the person whom the mission superintendent yelled at when one of my minions screwed up. My duties, I soon learned, were to then go and find out who screwed up and yell at him or her or them. The mission supe, you see, was too high up the food chain to yell at the underlings directly. It was a game of monkey in the middle, and I got to be the monkey. Also, I got to write everybody’s performance reports. Every single goddamn one. The sergeants who were supposed to do it couldn’t write a bathroom-stall limerick to save their lives, or so they said, and backed it up by not doing it.

And that was just the change in Air Force culture. Going from England, where I could read and write and speak to the local people, to Japan, where I couldn’t do any of that, very nearly drove me crazy. I was literally walking around in a daze for I don’t know how long. I’d been stationed before in foreign lands where I couldn’t speak the language, but I’d always been able to read. Give me a dictionary and I could figure things out. Being stationed in Japan, though, was the first time I’d been plopped down in a country where I couldn’t read. It was like being an infant again.

Culture shock | 5:59 am CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, story time, travel, work | Tags: ,
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Monday, January 21st, 2013

Pete e-mailed me the other day asking if I could remember any details about the vacations we took with our mom and dad in the mid 70s. I’ll bet he’s sorry he asked now, because the best I could do was vomit up random fragments of memories, and I mean ‘vomit’ in the best sense of the word, like if my brain could actually vomit. My answer to him was like word puke.

Like this: The first camping trip we made was in a pull-behind camper and I think we ended up in Kentucky, but really that’s just about all I remember. Pete says we visited places like Mammoth Cave and the Smokey Mountains, Memphis and maybe Louisiana. I remember going to those places on family camping trips, but if you put a gun to my head I couldn’t say that we did it on that first trip. If it came to that, all I’d be able to say under those circumstances would be, It’s just a vacation! Why are you putting a gun to my head? But if it didn’t, if you just asked me without the gunplay, I’d have to let my brain vomit all over you, then shrug my shoulders. Best I’d be able do. Sorry. The neurons that were responsible for tying all those memories together have either died or been recorded over.

There are a couple general impressions I could manage to piece together, though. For instance, the pull-behind camper was either a rental, or my parents borrowed it from a very generous family friend. For the next trip, we bought our own camper. Not a trailer, but the kind that rides on the back of a pickup truck. It was enormous, roughly the size of a Wal-Mart. It was so large that I don’t know how the rather ordinary-sized truck that came with it could carry it without breaking in two. The camper was wider than the truck, longer than the truck, and it was so top-heavy that it should have rolled over every time dad put the key in the ignition. I still don’t know how he drove it all those years and didn’t roll it. Pete and I used to ride in the part of the camper that hung over the cab of the truck, where every buck and sway was magnified in the worst way. There were plenty of times when dad went around a corner just a little too fast, or misjudged the depth of a pothole, and I would think, ‘This is it! We’re going full-turtle this time!’ And yet somehow it remained upright.

There was this one time I watched in stunned disbelief from the sidelines while he backed the truck, with camper still on top and a boat hitched to the back, down a boat launch that was so steep I was sure one of two things would happen: 1) the brakes would fade and the whole kit and caboodle would plow straight into the lake, or 2) the turnbuckles that kept the camper fastened to the truck would snap, the camper would slide out of the truck bed as if it were greased and it would steamroller over the boat and the boat trailer, then float about twenty yards into the lake before sinking to the bottom. I felt cheated when neither one of those things happened and he successfully launched the boat in spite of my warnings that it just wasn’t physically possible for him to do that. It was like he violated at least two of Newton’s laws of physics (inertia and, I believe, conservation of energy, or suchlike).

Then there was the frozen toilet incident. The camper had a chemical toilet in the back. Pretty cool, until you had to drain it. The first time we took the camper out, I think it was the trip we made to Florida to visit Disneyworld, we filled up the toilet and discovered that a valve or a pipe somewhere in the plumbing had cracked in the icy cold of the Wisconsin winter, spilling blue-tinted toilet water all over the floor of the camper. Dad spent a long, hellish night baling that nasty stuff out of the toilet, then mopping up the mess. To add insult to injury, on the drive down to Florida he stopped at a gas station with an overhang that, luckily, cleared the roof of the camper by an inch or two but, unluckily, did not clear the plastic bubble skylight. He scraped that sucker clean off the top. Weirdly, he wasn’t very pissed about it. He was just like, “Well, that figures.”

family camping | 9:50 pm CST
Category: O'Folks, play, story time, travel, vacation
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Saturday, January 5th, 2013

Poor B had a stuffy nose that woke her up this morning. I had a cat that woke me up. If I had to pick one, I guess I’d take the cat. If the cat wakes me up, at least I don’t feel like I’ve been smothered with a pillow, unless the cat wakes me up by parking on my face. None of our cats do that, thank goodness. None of our surviving cats. Kidding. I have never snuffed a cat. Wanted to, many times, dreamed of it, particularly when they won’t let me sleep at night, but never done it.

Last night, just after lights out, one of them, probably the fat one, came creeping into the room, probably stalking the skinny one, because they launched into a flurry of chasing each other across the house, but just before they did, the stalker stepped on the loose floor board in front of the bedroom closet and the creaking noise it made sounded exactly like the tippy-toe approach of the axe murder. I jerked my head up off the pillow to look but of course nobody was there. Seeing that nobody is there is almost worse than seeing the axe murderer. If it’s not the axe murderer, it could be the monster under the bed! Or a ghost! Or a swarm of killer cockroaches!

Then the cats went on their crazy tear and I started counting the minutes until they settled down.

Story time: My dad lived on a farm when he was a boy. This was during the depression of the 1930s. His dad was out of a job and his mom’s family had a big farm where they went to live for a while. Like any farm, they had lots of feral cats roaming the place. There were so many cats that they became a nuisance and had to be culled from time to time. One day, my dad was handed a burlap sack stuffed full of kittens and a big rock and told to take it down to the bridge and drop it in the river. I guess he walked all the way down to the bridge with the sack but couldn’t bring himself to do the deed, having to listen to those kittens mew and cry the whole time from being stuck in that bag. As Grandma told the story, she found him standing on the porch in tears, sobbing sorry, sorry, sorry, as he handed the sack back to her.

cat story | 8:42 am CST
Category: Dad, daily drivel, My Darling B, O'Folks, story time | Tags:
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Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

Ten years ago:

I got a new computer at my desk. This happened in a really weird way. I was using the old computer a couple days ago when I reached across the desk and spilled a Styrofoam cup of hot tea on the keyboard, which stopped it dead. This was not entirely a bad thing, so far as I could see, because the old computer sucked, but unfortunately for me and anybody else who was a mission supe, we had to have that computer to do our work. I had to ask for a new keyboard, which meant that I had to explain why it wasn’t working, and they wrote up a memo for record and all.

Two hours later, another guy brought out the new computer, a sleek, black Dell with all the bells and whistles. Everybody stopped at my desk to oooh and ahhh over it. The lieutenant was so jealous. “Master Sergeant,” he commanded, “I want you to go get another cup of tea and dump it on my keyboard.” His computer sucked, too.

 
I was stationed overseas at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan from 2001 until 2005, where I did a brief stint as a mission superintendent. It’s almost impossible for me to believe that was ten years ago.
 

We had Thanksgiving at a friend’s house. Each family brought a dish or two and made a pot luck out of it. When the meal was ready, we made a long line that kept circulating through the kitchen as people came back to load up for seconds and thirds.

After supper, we got together in the living room to sing karaoke. Summarizing generally, the Americans sucked, but the Japanese were great at it.  The Japanese sergeant they called Chi-chi had a beautiful voice, but he sang only one song, so we mostly had to listen to the Americans butcher pop tunes from the 80s and 90s. 

Sean probably had the most fun of anybody; karaoke is his calling, I think.  He said later that it was the most fun he’s ever had.  Go figure.

 

Thanksgiving | 3:22 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, O'Folks friends, story time, work | Tags:
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Thursday, November 1st, 2012

About two dozen trick-or-treaters came to the door of Our Humble O’Bode this year, all of them little ones. None of the sullen teenagers who threw on their football uniforms and held out a pillow case last year returned this year, so all those sugar beets we kept handy in a bucket by the door will have to go into the compost. (“What? It’s a sugar beet! Now scram!”)

And this year we saw none of the hatchet-in-the-head costumes that were so enormously popular the first few years we started handing out candy at our present address. Man, those used to give me nightmares! It’s one thing for an adult to wear a gory costume like that to a Halloween party, but totally another thing to see a sweet little six-year-old girl at your door smiling up at you with a knife dripping blood stuck right between her twinkling green eyes. So glad the popularity of that particular costume seems to have faded.

No, this year they were all Spider-Mans and fairies. The scariest costume I saw was a kid with a rubber werewolf head. That was it, just a rubber werewolf head. Shouted a muffled “Trick or treat!” from deep inside it, held out his plastic pail in the shape of a jack-o-lantern, then said “Thank you!” as he left. Almost all of them were polite enough to say “Thank you” this year, and except for the two at the end who grabbed as much candy as their greedy little hands could hold, they all took just one treat, or at least asked before they grabbed a second.

Best costume this year had to be the kid dressed as Frank Sinatra, not the way he dressed in his Vegas years but from back when Old Blue Eyes was just starting to croon. At least I think she was dressed as Frankie. Wasn’t singing New York, New York or anything else that would give it away, just wore a jacket and tie with a pretty sweet fedora. I guess I should’ve asked.

treat! | 5:31 am CST
Category: daily drivel, Our Humble O'Bode, story time
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Monday, October 29th, 2012

There was the most amazingly full moon visible through the front window of Our Humble O’Bode this morning. I sat and watched it set in the early-morning gloom, big and bright enough to read by, not that I was nutbrained enough to go out into twenty-degree weather to read anything. It’ll be full tonight. Maybe I’ll open the blinds on the bedroom window and fall asleep with the Man In The Moon gazing down at me.

True story: On one of the first nights I was staying with my grandparents for the summer, I went looking for Grandpa Fred but he was nowhere to be found. “Where’s Grandpa Fred?” I asked Grandma Cleo.

“He’s lighting the moon,” she told me.

“Really?”

“Sure, go and look.”

And when I looked out the window, there was the moon, big and bright. Wow!

“Grandma said you lighted up the moon!” I said to Grandpa Fred, when I ran into him in the hallway.

“That’s right, I did,” he said.

So the next night when Grandpa Fred disappeared again, I ran straight to the window to see if he was lighting the moon. There it was again! Big and bright as before!

“Grandma, Grandpa’s lighting up the moon again!”

“I know,” she said.

This happened night after night. One night, after he disappeared and the moon lit up again, I ran into Grandpa Fred coming out of the bathroom.

“Oh, that’s how I get up to the moon,” he explained. Well, how else would you get there?

I didn’t figure out what was going on for years.

how the moon lights up | 7:16 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, Grandparents, O'Folks, story time
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Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Best story I have about anybody with an extraordinary name: I once knew a woman named Koweena Sucksdorf. She pronounced it exactly the way it looks. I met her while I was attending a four-week seminar where, on the first day, the instructor introduced himself and then, in the tradition that was as time-honored as it was painful, turned to each of us and asked what our names were and where we were from.

I was sitting right next to Koweena, so it was her turn after I finished up with the short version of my life’s story. She began her introduction by saying, “My name is Koweena Sucksdorf…” and didn’t get any farther because the instructor exploded in a volley of donkey laughter. He managed to regain control of his body from the stupid half of his brain after a few uncomfortable moments, and even tried to cover his blunder by saying something like, “Oh, what a pretty name,” but by then there were no words that could possibly have prevented Koweena from cutting him to pieces with the laser-like glare of her eyes.

Name Game | 8:26 pm CST
Category: story time
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Sunday, October 7th, 2012

image of B and I on Brooklyn BridgeCrossing the Brooklyn Bridge was one of the items on our Tourist To-Do List, but how to do it was up for grabs until the day we showed up at the South Street Seaport for a tour and spied Blazing Saddles, a vendor that rented bicycles by the hour. Each came equipped with a map that was marked up for a tour of the area, including a trip across the Brooklyn Bridge. Could it sound more perfect? I think not!

So on Friday morning, after stopping by the ticket booth on Fulton Street to see if there were any half-price tickets to the Broadway smash hit Book of Mormon and walking away sadly disappointed again, we headed down to the pier to rent bikes, or rather, a bike: they had a tandem Schwinn that looked to us like it might be a lot of fun. We’d never ridden a tandem together before, but how hard could it be, right? The guy renting the bikes showed us how it worked, took an impression of our credit card, strapped helmets on our heads and sent us on our way. Easy-peasy.

I’ve no doubt that, if we’d had a few days instead of two hours to practice riding a tandem together, we might’ve gotten good enough at it that we would’ve had the time to look around and enjoy ourselves, but here’s the thing: There were an awful lot of people on the bike path — walkers, skaters, bikers, people standing on their hands. On my own bike I would’ve felt confident enough to take a look around while easily threading my way between them, but that tandem steered like a cow. A twenty-foot-long cow.

Each time I lined up the bike to thread our way through a gap in the crowd, another pedestrian would wander into our way, or another bicyclist would whoosh past us and cut me off, or My Darling B would lean to one side to get a glimpse of something my head was blocking her view of. Any one of a dozen changes like this would require me to make a new adjustment to our trajectory, and very often all those things would happen simultaneously. I felt as though, if I took my attention off the people around us for even a second, I would probably hit every single one of them!

So the only time when I could look around and see any of the sights was when we stopped. That ended up happening more often than not, as it turned out. Like the time we had to stop so I could grab a stick off the ground and use it as a lever to get the chain around the gearwheel. It had jumped off when I shifted into the lowest gear. Luckily we were on a side street where there wasn’t a lot of traffic, and not a hundred yards further on, up the rather steep approach to the Manhattan Bridge, where suddenly losing the ability to crank the bike forward would have been about as bad as it could be. If you’re going to rent a bike from a vendor, by the way, take it for a spin. Ride it like you’re trying to break it. You don’t want to be a mile away from the vendor and find out that the shifter is crap or the tires are under-inflated. Voice of experience talking here.

As we rode away from the pier and under the Brooklyn Bridge, we were supposed to turn left and follow a side street to the on-ramp. We tried several times to do that but couldn’t find how to thread our way through the construction that was taking place along the road beside the bike path. Concrete barriers had been set up and, although there was one gap in them, it didn’t appear to line up with the street we were meant to take. The bike path continued along the East River toward the Manhattan Bridge, however, so we decided to do our trip ass-backwards and cross into Brooklyn on the Manhattan Bridge first, get a good look at the Brooklyn Bridge that way and maybe get the hang of riding together on the tandem.

Riding along the bike trail built our confidence a bit as there were only a few people walking or riding along it. Then we had to turn off the bike trail, ride through the neighborhood at the base of the bridge and thread our way up the entrance onto the walkway along the side of the bridge. I don’t even remember how we did that. It’s all sort of a blur of weaving through traffic while trying not to run any red lights. Other than that, I’m afraid I have to admit I suffered a sort of sensory overload and couldn’t even move my lips to answer B when she repeatedly asked me where I was going and what I was doing. Somehow, though, we ended up circling around a ramp up to the bridge and setting off across it.

We ended up on the upriver side of the bridge. Maybe there was a way to get to the walkway on the downriver side, which would’ve given us a great view of the Brooklyn Bridge, as I’d hoped, instead of the slightly less picturesque views of the electric power substations and abandoned docks of Brooklyn. Oh, well. At least there weren’t too many people on the walkway, although it would’ve been nice to have that low gear on the climb up to the middle of the bridge. We were able to pass the lady in the pink jogging outfit when we first got on the bridge but quickly got so tired and sweaty that she easily passed us halfway up the climb and we didn’t catch her again until we were coasting down the other side.

After we reached Brooklyn – chaos! We had only the dimmest notion about how to get to the Brooklyn Bridge. The map they’d given us was little help; not all the streets were labeled, and they’d intended for us to go from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Manhattan Bridge, not the other way around, so we had to find our own way through the back streets. Again, it’s a blur to me now, although I do remember that the traffic wasn’t too bad and that, once we’d made our way through the business district to a park at the base of the bridge, we were able to go slow and look around. Didn’t help, though. We looked at every map we had but couldn’t figure out how to bicycle up to the entrance to the bridge. Eventually we found a pedestrian stairway and carried the bike up. Several other bicyclists were doing it, and we were at our wit’s end, so B grabbed the back end of the bike and I grabbed the front and up we went.

When I thought of biking across the Brooklyn Bridge, I had a picture in my mind of a wide lane that we would easily go sailing along, without a care in the world, looking this way, looking that at the sights of the New York skyline. In actual fact, there’s a photo on the vendor’s web site showing two people doing exactly that. BUT: Bicyclists share a boardwalk with pedestrians that runs down the middle of the bridge above the traffic lanes and appears to be about ten or twelve feet wide. There’s a white line painted down the middle of the boardwalk, and on one side of the line there’s the classic stick figure of a walking man to indicate the pedestrian lane, while on the other side of the line there’s a stick figure on a bike to indicate the bike lane.

The pedestrians pay no attention whatever to the line. They only shy away from the bike lane when bikers whizzing by nearly run them down. And the New Yorkers making their way on bike across the bridge, as they probably do every day of the week, were flying fearlessly through the crowds of people, and around the dorky old slowpoke tourists like us, as effortlessly as you would sidestep a telephone pole. I don’t know how, but they did.

As for us, I don’t know how we crossed the bridge without hitting someone. It was difficult enough to pick our way through the people on the uphill side where there was a little room for error, but on the downhill side it was terrifying – or, as My Darling B put it, “exhilarating!” The bridge was in the middle of a multi-billion dollar refurbishment, so the walkway on the downhill side was a gauntlet of steel shutters that narrowed the walkway even more. B started yelling “On Your Right!” when a woman stopped, looked up to admire the view and began to step back into the bike lane in front of us. I had already put all our momentum behind zigging out of the way of another biker and really thought she was going down under the wheels of our bike until B yelled and the woman jumped out of the way.

When we finally got to the Manhattan side I pulled off into a park to regain some sense of composure and powow with B to plan for the next stage of our ride. We had been thinking about riding back down the East River bike path to Battery Park and, if we felt we could keep going, north along the Hudson River to visit the parks there, then double back to the pier to turn in our bike. B was still up for it, so off we went.

We had to ride past the South Street Seaport, which is where tourists buses stop and throngs of tourists off-load, gathering in the bike lane before marching off, in the bike lane, to whatever sights they’ve stopped to see along the river front. We had to dismount in order to cross through the streams of people, but once we were through we got back on the bike and shaved past them by yelling “On Your Right!” over and over while picking up speed. It worked on the Brooklyn Bridge, and it worked there, too. They jumped out of our way like scared mice.

Just past the pier there was a lot of construction that narrowed the bike lane to about three feet, and it was choked with pedestrians. No amount of yelling would make them jump out of our way – there was no place for them to jump to. We had to get off the bike again and walk it between the orange plastic fences, excusing ourselves as we poked each passing tourist with the handlebars. After walking maybe 50 yards there was room to one side to pull off the path. The construction and the narrowed path went on as far as we could see, so I proposed to B that we turn around while we were still close enough to the rental place and return the bikes now. That way we would have the rest of the afternoon to walk wherever we wanted without having to drag a tandem bicycle with us wherever we went. She agreed, and back we went.

To wrap up: A fun tour, an exhilarating ride across the Brooklyn Bridge, but riding a bike to Battery Park is not the way to go while all that construction is going on, and make sure your bike works before you leave.

Bicycling across the Brooklyn Bridge | 12:04 pm CST
Category: bicycling, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, story time, travel, vacation | Tags:
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Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

A lone figure stumbles into the dining room, feeling his way through the darkness toward the far corner of the room to the coffee shrine. Hooking a finger through the handle of the electric kettle, he shuffles across the room to the kitchen sink, opens the faucet and stands waiting with a finger hanging in the steam of water, jerking it away when it’s too hot to stand. He fills the kettle.

Is it still a kettle if it’s made of plastic? he wonders. It’s the first coherent thought of the day to pass through his brain.

The kettle fits on a base that connects it to the electric cord plugged into the wall socket. The water begins to pop and hiss as the kettle warms up.

He flips through the stack of paper filters, trying to get hold of just one. How can this possibly be as hard as it is? he wonders. How can the top filter always be stuck to the one underneath? He does a lot of wondering first thing in the morning.

Holding a filter, he uses his free hand to scoop coffee beans into the grinder. He counts one, two, three, four scoops of beans. There used to be a reason to measure out exactly four scoops, but now it’s just muscle memory. He shuffles back to the kitchen to set the filter and the grinder on the counter top.

He dozes off while washing out the carafe and doesn’t wake up until he’s drying it off with a dish towel. Dirty or clean? he wonders, then decides that, just this one time, it doesn’t matter so much.

Grinding the coffee wakes him up. It’s more physical activity than he really wants to do at this early hour, but as much as he’d rather be flat on his back in bed, he wants a hot pot o’ joe even more. The water in the kettle comes to a boil just as he finishes grinding the last of the beans. He dumps the grinds into the paper filter that somebody – did he do that? – has already loaded into the drip cone on top of the carafe, fetches the kettle from the coffee shrine, and begins to pour piping hot water through the cone. From below he can hear the satisfying drip, drip, dribble as the aroma of life itself fills the room.

ritual | 6:18 am CST
Category: coffee, daily drivel, food & drink, play, story time
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Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Well, that was a weird dream.

I had a grouper in an aquarium. Goupers are typically pretty enormous fish, but this one was only an inch or so long. I’m not sure how I knew it was a grouper, other than it was a dream and I just knew.

I had other fish in the tank, too, and the grouper was systematically devouring them. He would sneak up behind another fish, grab it by the tail and hold on to it for a moment. The other fish would get this, “Oh, shit!” expression on its face but wouldn’t try to get away or move or anything. Then the grouper would eat it in one big gulp before moving on to the next fish.

I sat in a recliner and watched.

I’m still trying to figure it out. It could have been my brain’s way of complaining that I don’t watch enough television.

fishy | 5:36 am CST
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Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Story time! Both our boys went through a phase where they felt it was okay to pee without closing the bathroom door, I guess because it took way too much time. Asking them politely to close the door did no good. They would just “forget” each time they went. Ranting at them likewise did not change anything.

“What’s the big deal?” they’d say, when I complained. “It’s not like you have to watch.”

You can’t say something like that to a smartass like me and not expect some blowback. Whenever I heard them peeing after that, I’d run to the bathroom door and stand in it, arms crossed, watching them. They, of course, were powerless to stop me. When they complained, I threw up my hands and asked them, “What’s the big deal? You left the door open. It’s not like you were trying to keep anybody from watching you.”

Both got into the habit of closing the door real quick.

doorway | 5:49 am CST
Category: story time
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Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Toward the end of this month I’m going to a clinic downtown to have this certain medical procedure that those of us over-fifties get to have because the doctor keeps bugging us about it every single goddamned time we go in for a hangnail or a bloody nose or whatever. “Have you had your colonoscopy yet?” he’ll ask, and I’ll actually feel a little bit guilty about having to answer “No,” as if it were a badge of shame like adultery, or being a liberal. It’s my colon. I get to say when you’re allowed to scope it. Just sit tight until I feel up to it, okay?

The last time I went in, though, I realized I was never going to feel up to it. I mean, really, is that something anybody in the whole history of the world has ever woke up looking forward to? Gee, what a great day! I wonder what the inside of my colon looks like? Maybe I could ask my doctor to shove a camera in there and look around! I don’t think so.

So I finally caved in and scheduled an appointment. I was going to do it in the spring, to get it over and done with, but the procedure and the anesthetic leave you so wonky that they warn you ahead of time to bring a babysitter with you. My Darling B couldn’t get off from work until later, so I pushed the date back to June. Happy Father’s Day!

About a week later I opened my mailbox and found a fat envelope from the clinic with a letter inside confirming my appointment and instructions on how to get ready. I did what anybody else who was looking forward to a colonoscopy as much as I was would have done with it: I tossed the letter on the desk and ignored it for a month.

But the clinic called last week and left a message on our machine, saying that a nurse would have to interview me before I could have the procedure. I called her back this morning and we had a nice chat that turned out to be a lot shorter than she thought it would be. Apparently, a lot of over-fifties are in much worse shape than I am. They’ve all got allergies, they’re taking half a dozen different pain meds, their bowels are either chronically constipated or they’re constantly trotting toward the toilet on account of irritable bowel syndrome or celiac disease. I’ve got none of that.

I detected a note of relief in the nurse’s tone when I said that I didn’t smoke, and she seemed genuinely pleased that I wasn’t using any “recreational drugs.” I did detect just a note of disappointment, though, when I admitted that I drank. Well, we all have our hobbies. “How often?” was the follow-up question, “monthly, weekly, daily?”

“Daily,” I admitted.

“How much?”

“Oh, one to two drinks a day.”

Funny, I was never a drinker before I started working in an office environment. Oh, I liked to have the occasional beer, and maybe a glass of wine now and then, but never the hard stuff. Didn’t even like the hard stuff. Thought it was like gargling with gasoline. Well, today I can gargle with the best of them, if I may say so myself. I wouldn’t think of turning down a pre-dinner apertif, and an after-dinner nightcap isn’t out of the question most nights, either. And to think I owe this new-found appreciation to the unending joy that is office work. I’m sure there’s an important lesson there somewhere, and as soon as I can lift my face out of this puddle of my own drool, I’ll see if I can work that out, and get back to you as soon as I do. In the meantime, the next round’s on me.

That little digression didn’t make it into the interview, by the way.

Then it was on to the instructions. The whole week before the procedure – that’s starting this Friday! – I’m not supposed to eat anything with any fiber in it. I can’t eat any fresh vegetables. Too much fiber in them. Canned vegetables are okay. Apparently, they’ve had all their fiber removed. I can’t eat fruits, either, except for bananas, and I can’t eat any hulled grains. White bread, white rice, and white pasta are all okay. Looks like the rice cooker’s going to be bubbling away all week long, and you can expect Ragu stock to spike briefly.

The day before the procedure I have to drink some medicine mixed up with a quart of water or Gatorade. They actually recommend Gatorade. I’ll bet the Gatorade people are getting kickbacks somehow. The medicine comes in two separate pouches labeled A and B. It’s way too dangerous to sell it to you already mixed together, and you don’t need to know what it’s really called. A and B. That’s good enough for your purposes. Just drink it.

And listen to this: The normal side effects of drinking A and B are: chills, nausea, and abdominal cramping. Normal! On top of that, if you know anything about this procedure, then you already know that A and B are a powerful laxative, so powerful that the nurse said I’d want to stay close to the bathroom all day long. So I’ll just be camped out on the toilet, doubled up and shivering when I’m not leaning over to retch into the sink. Don’t mind me. It’s normal.

Since that’s going to be my day before the procedure, I asked my boss if I could have it off. She said yes without me having to tell her about the chills, cramps, nausea or retching, which I would have done in a heartbeat if she’d had a moment’s hesitation about okaying the time off.

And then there’s the day of the procedure, which begins at three o’clock in the morning. Three o’clock! It’s normal! I’m supposed to mix up another batch of A and B the night before and leave it in the fridge, because it’s easier to choke it down when it’s chilled – like a fine wine! By this time, the instructions tell me, I will probably want to wipe with moist towelettes and apply ointment between visits to the toilet. It’s Normal!

“After the colonoscopy exam,” the instructions conclude, “you may feel a little bloated for a few hours. This is caused by air that was put into your colon during the exam.” It’s Normal! “You could put it to good use by playing the tuba with your butt, or lining up a row of fifty candles and seeing how many you can blow out. Let your imagination soar!” Okay, I made up that part.

“When you get home after the test you will want to rest and take it easy for the rest of the day.” That’s got to be the understatement of the century. I’m thinking I’ll either want to curl up in bed and cry myself to sleep, or wolf down all the food in the kitchen, and then curl up in bed and cry myself to sleep.

“It’s important to stay hydrated with liquids after your procedure.” Luckily, I’ve got a lot of beer in the basement. That takes care of the hydration and wanting to take it easy.

cocktail | 6:15 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, office work, story time
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Saturday, May 26th, 2012

I dreamed I could fly. A woman I worked with told me how she did it. I ran into her in the break room and, while I was nuking my lunch in the microwave, I asked her what she did last weekend. She answered, casually, Oh, I was flying.

I see, I answered her. Is that right?

Yes, she said, I’ve been doing it for years, but I’ve only recently learned how to fly high enough to do loops and dives. The secret, she said, was to wear a long, loose coat, take a long, running jump, and to square your shoulders just as your feet left the ground.

At least, that’s how it works for me, she cautioned. If you try it, you might have to do it just a little bit differently.

Well. Yes. Ah, lunch is ready! See you around!

I thought she was loony as a Canadian dollar, of course, but it just so happened that I had a long, loose overcoat in my closet, and it just so happened to be cold enough to wear it that weekend when I walked down the street to the corner store. Going the long way around the block on the way home, I turned down a lonely street and picked up the pace a little bit. Then, a couple of times, I skipped high enough for both feet to leave the ground, squaring my shoulders back as they did.

Nothing special happened. I didn’t get any more air than I would have if I’d skipped without thinking that maybe it was possible to fly because some crazy lady suggested that I could if I dressed for it. Of course, she also said I had to take a running jump, not walk a little faster and skip, so, just to prove to myself that she was crazy and I wasn’t, I ran. I stretched out my stride until I was running along at a pretty good clip and then, just before I got to the corner, I planted both feet, jumped into the air and squared my shoulders back, just as she said I should do.

I cleared the treetops by at least fifty feet.

Mine was not a graceful flight. I did not soar through the skies like Superman, one arm stretched out before me, with a look of purpose on my face. I’ve never been a graceful athlete in any case, but when my feet left the ground and I realized that they were going to keep leaving the ground, I panicked, because I had not planned my flight with any kind of foresight at all. There were several very tall trees in my path and I ended up windmilling my arms to thrash my way through the upper branches of the one immediately in front of me. That sent me tumbling through the air so that, as I came back down on a ballistic curve, I was flailing my arms and legs in every direction, trying to regain some sense of balance before I hit the ground. To my great amazement, I landed on my feet.

Straightening my coat, I looked around for anybody that might be staring at the guy who’d just flown a block and a half over the trees, scattering his groceries all over the street. Didn’t see anybody.

Okay. Well. Can’t just go back home and sit on the sofa with a book after that. Could’ve been a fluke. Or a psychotic episode.

Trying a little harder to fly higher this time, I succeeded in shooting almost straight up several hundred feet, flipping end over end as I reached the peak of my flight, and finding myself diving headfirst at the ground. Yikes.

At this point you’re probably thinking: Pffft! You’re not flying! Sounds to me like you’re just jumping real high. And I would’ve had to give you that. However, as I plummeted to the ground, looking directly at the square of pavement I really didn’t want to smash into, I turned my face up toward the sky, focused on the tops of some distant clouds, squared my shoulders again and zoomed back up. And this time I managed to remember to spread my arms, so I even looked like I was flying.

Landing turned out to be more of a challenge than I thought it would be. Several times I ended up tumbling ass over teakettle when my feet snagged in the grass, but with a little practice I found just the right angle to come down and hit the ground running. The city park turned out to be a much better place to land than in the street, although I did interrupt a Frisbee game once. After offering my apologies I flew away and they carried on, not at all surprised that a flying man dropped right into the middle of their game.

Before I quit for the day I took an especially long running jump and flew as high as I could. I got so high that the cold air froze my breath to the ends of my eyelashes and, at that point, I thought it safest to come back down, but when I looked down I was so high I couldn’t tell where my neighborhood was. I couldn’t even tell where my continent was. It was getting awfully cold, though, so I swooped back down toward the first piece of ground I saw, closer and closer until I spotted what looked like Lake Monona and made a beeline for it.

It wasn’t Lake Monona, as it turned out. It was a frozen lake somewhere north of the Arctic Circle. Finland, I think, because I flew over what looked like Great Britain as I crossed lots and lots of water, probably the Atlantic Ocean, as I tried to find my way back home. I had to stop several times to ask somebody where I was, and two or three times they didn’t answer in a language I knew. When I finally ended up in New York I very carefully pointed myself west and jumped only high enough to eyeball the Great Lakes. After that, it was fairly easy to find my way, but up to that point I sure could have used an iPhone and Google Earth.

I ran into my coworker in the break room again the next day. How are you today? she asked. Nice day.

Nice day to go flying, I answered.

Oh, have you been flying? she asked. I had to stay in and wash clothes.

high | 6:48 am CST
Category: story time | Tags:
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Sunday, May 20th, 2012

My parents used to ship me off in the summer to stay with my grandparents for a week. I must’ve been a handful back then, although I think they sent my brother off to our other set of grandparents at the same time. My guess is they probably wanted some time together in Vegas, or maybe they just wanted to sleep for a week.

But that’s not why I mention it. On a particularly hot day while I was staying with my grandparents in Appleton, I came in to ask my Grandma Cleo for a drink of water. She let the tap run until it was good and cold, and filled one of the biggest glasses in her cupboard. Before handing it over to me, though, she gave me this warning: “Don’t drink it too fast, or you’ll have a stroke!”

I don’t know if she literally meant I’d get a stroke, or if she was just exaggerating to make her warning a little more colorful, but for years – nay, decades after that, I drank cold water v e r y   s l o w l y so I wouldn’t seize up and die! Didn’t even have to be a hot day, or flushed with exercise. I was just too scared of having a stroke after that to gulp cold water.

So there you go, one more arrow in your parental arsenal of things to scare your kids with, courtesy of my Grandma Cleo. You’re welcome.

stroke | 11:26 am CST
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Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

I bought a coffee pot from a guy on e-bay. Well, no, wait. If I say I’ve bought a coffee pot, you might assume I gave the guy money and he sent me a coffee pot. You might even assume I now possess a coffee pot. I do not and, as far as I know, he did not. So let me start over:

I saw a coffee pot on e-bay that I wanted, so I bid on it, and won, and paid the seller. Then I did the UPS equivalent of waiting by the mail box – every evening after supper, I punched the tracking number into the UPS web site to see where my coffee pot was. The first time I checked, UPS told me the label had been printed but they still hadn’t taken delivery of the package. The next evening, same thing. And the next evening. And the next.

On the day after the seller said I could expect to take delivery of the coffee pot, I logged in to e-bay and asked the seller something like, Hi, I bought a coffee pot from you last week and I still don’t have it. He answered (the typos are all his):

I shipped it
On the 28th of sept contact ups thank you and I’m sorry for any inconvienence ups has caused u

If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear he was saying, “Oh hey, sorry UPS screwed up, sucks to be you, IT’S NOT MY FAULT!”

But I figured, give the man the benefit of the doubt; maybe he really did send it and the UPS tracking system just doesn’t realize it’s out there. That could happen, right? Sure, it could.

My Darling B, who isn’t the kind of obtuse, delusional goober I am, took matters into her own hands and contacted UPS customer service to find out what she could. While I was sitting on my hands, they told her that, although a label was printed by the seller on September 28th, UPS never took delivery of the package.

Three or four days after I was supposed to have my coffee pot, I wrote back to the seller:

“I contacted UPS and they told me they received electronic transmission of package data from the shipper on Sept 29th, but the package was not physically picked up from the shipper’s location. Please let me know whether you intend to ship the item, or refund my money.”

And then, just to cover my bases, I opened a case file with e-bay. I had no idea whether that would be worth my time or not, but I wanted it on record that I was working out this little problem with the seller. But that’s not the way the seller saw it:

I already told u this is ups’ fault I shipped it for sure y would I lie now ur just blowing things outs proportion I’m trying to make a living and support my kids and ur trying to destroy my ebay account by opening cases for no reason we could have resolved this ourselves

Dude. A little punctuation? And what’s with the leet speak? Your signature block says, “Sent from my smart phone.” How smart can it be if it doesn’t help you spell “you’re” correctly?

I never called him a liar, and I wasn’t interested in destroying his e-bay account. I just wanted my new coffee toy. “I don’t see why this can’t be resolved,” I wrote back. ”It should be a very simple matter for you to contact UPS, show them your receipt and get them to find out what happened to the item after they took delivery from you.”

His answer:

Well I printed the label online And in my small town the ups store doesn’t open till 430 pm to 630 pm but the doors are always open so I just drop the pakages off and never have a problem I guess I will probably end up having to give u a refund I was just trying to wait and see if it was gonna come or not u didn’t have to open a case so abruptly I was responding and trying to help resolve the problem when u open a case on someone it goes against their performance and eligability for top rated seller I sell a lot of different items ranging from $10 to $2000 sometimes and have not nor do I intend to rip anyone off for a measily 20 bucks I just wish that in the future u learn to give the seller a chance before taking to extremes

At this point My Darling B lost her patience with Mister Measily 20 Bucks and answered: “I think the best way to resolve this is for you to refund my payment, including shipping charges.” A “measily” twenty bucks must have been more than he was willing to part with because we haven’t heard from him since. I think we’ll give him until Friday before we torpedo his flawless 100% e-bay rating with an unsatisfactory review.

measly 20 bucks | 6:34 pm CST
Category: coffee, daily drivel, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, story time
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Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Hock rots. Puggled nose. Eye gron gree. Up up ter.

These are just a few samples of the first words used by our offspring. When the Seanster needed to blow his nose, for instance, he told his mother that his nose was puggled. It was a short jump from plugged so it was easy to figure out, and it was so endearing that both B and I started using puggled instead of plugged. The word has stuck with us to this day, as has Sean’s stated desire to satisfy an empty stomach: Eye gron gree.

Helicopters are up up ters. The first six months or so after Tim started talking were spent endlessly reciting nouns. He pointed at everything, everything and asked, “Whatsa?” Talking to him during those six months was like reading a dictionary out loud. One day he pointed at a helicopter and asked, so I told him. His rather fitting version came out up up ter. On the rare occasions when a helicopter appears in the sky, either B or I will almost always enthusiastically announce it to the other by pointing and shouting “Up up ter!” – usually drawing quizzical looks from passers-by.

Hock rots goes way back, and in our house only I use it, which is fitting because it originated with me, although I didn’t know that until a year or two ago. For the longest time I thought it was German or Czech or maybe even Polish, because my parents and their parents used to babble to each other using a mash-up of words and phrases from those languages, either to talk around the kids or just because, so naturally enough I thought hock rots must have been one of those words. On the few occasions that I wondered how it was spelled, I imagined it was something like haakrautz or hocrocz, but I was never able to find it in any dictionary no matter how many different variations I imagined. I always knew what it meant, though. That was never a secret. Whenever I started to hiccup, Mom or Dad would ask me, “Got the hock rots?”

Not long ago, after she described something using a smattering of German, I asked her about hock rots. “Where’s that word come from? I’ve never been able to find it.”

She laughed at me. “It came from you!” she said. Like Timmy’s up up ter, I mangled hiccups into hock rots, and Mom and Dad kept using it. I don’t get the hock rots much any more, but B does, so I still get to use it.

talk talk | 12:33 am CST
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Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Bleary-eyed, I staggered into Java Cat, the coffee shop at the very top of Monona Avenue, at seven-thirty this morning. I had stumbled in my duties as the maker of the coffee and allowed our home supply of beans to run out so, for my penance this morning, I rolled out of bed into a pair of trousers and hit the road almost before I had started thinking, certainly before I could see anything. I had to navigate my way up the road completely by feel until my eyes stopped tearing up and I could see more than a blur.

I could have made a quick, fifteen-minute trip to the corner grocery store to get the beans, but I’d much rather spend my money at a local merchant’s place than at a corporate chain store. I guess that sounds snotty but I don’t care. The people who own and operate Java Cat live right here in Madison. Chain stores can blah blah blah all they want about giving back to the community, but when the owner of the store is part of the community it means a little more to me, whether or not that makes sense. Thank you, I’ll get down off my soap box now.

There were only two people on the counter but one of them was working the drive-up window, leaving the other to serve walk-ins. There were just two people ahead of me, and the one at the front of the line was paying as I walked in, so I felt pretty good about my chances for getting out of there in less than five minutes. I remind the reader that, because of the very early hour, my brain cell had not even begun to fire at a frequency that would support rational thought. Had I been capable of putting two and two together, I would have recalled how long it takes to prepare a pair of double-shot ultra creamy venti caramel lattes and I would have more accurately calculated my time at something like ten minutes. Such is my life.

The young lady at the counter, a woman wearing many many piercings and only tight-fitting clothes so black that light itself could not escape from them, got busy loading ground beans into the latte machine before she commenced to pulling levers and boiling milk, while the woman at the window, who wore a tattoo like a cap on her bald head that would probably take a whole book written by Ray Bradbury to explain, gave all her attention to the long line of cars in the parking lot. This went on long enough for me to fall asleep standing up at least twice, but I was already half-asleep when I walked in, so my ability to stand in line was handicapped from the start.

My somnambulism was the prime reason I was taken completely by surprise by the woman with the tattooed head when she turned away from the window and announced she could help the next person in line, namely yours truly. If I had to name another reason, it might have been her smile, which was warm enough to melt all the frozen moons of Saturn. I don’t know why, but I harbor an assumption, unfair I suppose, that tattooed people are generally gruff and grumbly. She was neither. When I slid the bag of coffee beans I wanted across the counter, she very thoughtfully asked if I wanted them ground, and when I said no, thanks, she added that I was entitled to a free cup of coffee with the purchase of a bag of beans. That woke me up.

“I … I get free coffee? Right now?

Her smile rays brightened by an order of magnitude as she answered, “Yes. Would you like the house blend, Wake The Dead, or Arriva?”

I sank to one bended knee and answered, “I want to marry you!” Or I would have, if I weren’t already married to the perfect woman, but I am, and I am so monogamous you couldn’t turn me with a pipe wrench, so instead I got a grip on myself, asked her for a cup of Wake The Dead, my favorite roast from the Just Coffee Cooperative (another local merchant – ahem!) and glowingly took it from her, a gift the likes I have not received from a stranger in many moons. How does one even begin to put a value on the gift of free coffee? I can’t fathom it, not even after my brain cell fires fast enough to cast an incandescent light on the idea.

And that’s my morning so far. How’s yours?

wakey-wakey | 9:51 am CST
Category: coffee, daily drivel, food & drink, play, story time
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Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

During a long drive to my mother’s house to pick up some furniture, Tim asked me something about how easy or hard it was to learn to fly an airplane. It’s not hard at all, I told him, speaking from only a little bit of experience. I used to fly, way back when I was a pup.

Airplanes are really very easy to fly, at least the little ones you start off learning in. I imagine that great big hulking jet airliners are much more difficult, and very fast jets are probably total chaos all the time. Obviously a pilot has to develop his skills, but flying a little training plane is a cinch. Honest.

For a start, a plane will take off when it’s going fast enough. That’s really all there is to it. All the pilot has to do is keep it pointed straight ahead and make sure the nose doesn’t point up too high. Things go very bad very fast when the nose points too high. I’ll explain why in a minute.

Once the plane is in the air it wants to keep on flying, assuming no outside forces like thunderstorms or ice forming on the wings try to bring it down. The trickiest part, really, about flying an airplane is coaxing it back to the ground. The pilot has to throttle back the engine so the plane is moving as slowly as possible, which lets him get the wheels very close to the runway, but even then the plane doesn’t want to stop flying. When it’s very close to the ground, the plane will float like a balloon on top of a phenomenon called “ground effect,” so the pilot has to point the nose higher and higher into the sky until the angle of the wings is so steep they can’t generate lift any more, and the plane literally falls out of the sky.

If you’re having a good day, you can get the plane to within a few feet of the ground before you drop out of the sky. If you’re having a bad day, you hit the ground with enough force that the plane bounces high enough to grab some lift, arc over the ground effect, nose over, and hit the ground hard enough to bounce way too high again, and again, and again. This is called porpoising and is guaranteed to happen to you the first time your family drives hours to see you fly a plane all by yourself like the big boys, no matter how many landings you greased right down the middle of the runway before that.

The teeny tiny little plane I learned to fly was a Cessna 150. It was so small that only two people could sit in it. It had a back seat, but nobody on earth is small enough to fit in the back seat of a Cessna 150. When two grown men sit in the front seats, they have to be okay with sitting so close to one another that they are practically sharing underwear.

My instructor pilot was a guy named Bill Heling. His last name was pronounced HAY ling, and when he pronounced it, he turned the volume up to eleven. All his life he’d flown tiny little airplanes like the Cessna 150, which are so small that the engine is practically in your lap. Also, it has no muffler at all. In order to have a conversation in one of these planes with the person sitting right next to you, you have to turn so your mouth is right next to his ear and YELL. Bill was so used to talking like this that he did it all the time. Seated hip-to-hip in a Cessna 150 he didn’t speak, really, he roared. After an hour of instruction in the cockpit with him my ears rang the rest of the day.

Bill started off every lesson in the hangar. It was one part book learning, one part toy story, one part campfire freakout. He would start by dropping some dry aeronautical fact on me, like how a climbing turn affected the lift of the wings. Then he’d get out the toys, usually a little model airplane on a stick that he used to demonstrate what we were talking about. Every one of these lessons started with a demonstration of how the maneuver was supposed to be executed, but ended with a demonstration of how it could go oh so terribly wrong. “If your not watching your torque and P-factor,” he would warn me, rolling the little toy airplane over on its back, “you could climb, roll over, crash and burn.” And then he would tap the nose of the plane on the desk top. Climb, roll over, crash and burn is a phrase that still surfaces from the depths of my memory at the oddest times.

Then we would step out of his office to preflight the airplane: Make sure that everything that was supposed to move could move, and everything that wasn’t supposed to move was bolted on tight. Clean all the bugs off the instrument ports and blow hard through the hole in the wing that went WHEEEEEE when the wings were angled too high to lift the plane. Squirt a little gasoline into a cup to look for boogers. Boogers in the gas meant there was water in the tanks. Very bad.

When the preflight inspection was done we climbed into the cockpit, adjusted the seats until we were almost positive we could sit that close to one another for a whole hour, and cranked up the engine. It’s not at all like starting the engine in your car, unless your muffler’s shot. You can’t imagine that kind of noise unless maybe you’ve accidentally hit the panic button on your key fob when you were standing right in front of your car and the horn started honking, and it kept honking because you couldn’t figure out how to stop it. Now imagine that the horn kept honking no matter what you did. It’s not really like that, because you almost become used to it after five or ten minutes, but at the same time you never get really used to it. For instance:

You roll out to the end of the runway and stop to check the magnetos, which are the two dynamos that make electricity for the spark plugs. You want to make sure they’re both working so that if one quits, the engine will keep on running, maybe even until you land. You run the engine up to 1,500 revs, an ear-splitting racket, then switch off one magneto. The revs drop to about 1,000 revs. When you switch it back on and switch off the other magneto, you should still have 1,000 revs, and when you do it’s a good thing, but your ears are already ringing.

Or: You’re at the end of the runway, ready to take off, so you push the throttle all the way in. Man, what a racket! The engine has only four cylinders, but it’s like they’re sitting right in your lap, banging away against every pot and pan in your kitchen. Really it’s the propeller making all the noise, but it sounds like the engine of a hot rod going whapity-whapity-whap-whap-whap. Have you ever heard bedsheets snapping in a strong wind? Have you ever heard an unbalanced wash machine walk across a concrete basement floor? How about a whole string of fire crackers going off? It’s a bit like all of that, at the same time.

But, weirdly, you don’t seem to notice the noise as much once you’re in the air. It’s pretty unnerving as you’re charging down the runway, gaining speed, struggling to hold the nose wheel down, but as soon as you can see you’re going about a hundred miles an hour and not in any real danger of the dreaded “climb, roll over, crash and burn” scenario, you can lift the nose into the air – hell, you can just let it rise all by itself into the air, and suddenly you’re airborne, flying, and the noise doesn’t seem to register on your brain any longer. You still have to shout to be heard by the guy who’s sitting so close that you’d be a lot more comfortable if you just threw your arm over his shoulder and gave him a great big smooch on the lips, but somehow it doesn’t make as overpowering an impression on your brain once you’re flying. There’s probably a very obvious explanation for that. Maybe I’ll google it later.

high | 7:46 pm CST
Category: story time
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Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

My great-grandmother Josephine, whom we called Feenie, is almost unknown to me except as the sweet silver-haired woman who welcomed us into her house with a great big smile whenever we stopped by on our frequent trips to Algoma to see my grandma Lil and grandpa Leo, who were on my father’s side of the family. Feenie was my mother’s grandma but for many of my young years this fact somehow escaped me. I thought she was just a nice little old lady my parents happened to know who liked to sit me on her lap and read to me.

Not too long ago I came into possession of a big stack of old photo albums, several of which are more than a hundred years old and chock full of photos of people who are presumably related to me but I have no idea how. I was flipping through one the other night, wondering who all those people could be, when it slowly dawned on me that this one in particular must have been Feenie’s. This one was the clincher:

image of Josephine

Josephine is the dark-eyed beauty on the far right. She’s written “Me” on her shoulder and somebody else has added: “Jo,” so this album must have fallen into the hands of someone else who was presumably trying to figure out who all these distant relatives were, too.

Maud, the woman standing beside Feenie, and Luella, whom everyone called Lulu, sitting in front of her, were sisters. They had another sister named Cora, who is very probably the woman on the far left, and a brother, Rolland Chester Bach, my great-grandfather. He married Josephine in 1904.

Taped into the front cover of the album, I found this photo:

image of

The album is packed full of photos of the family on fishing trips. The guys really got into it, but the women appear to have gone along to dress up and wear enormous hats. There are no photos of the women holding up one end of the stringer in triumph. Josephine doesn’t appear to be even a little interested in the catch. Rolland was usually called Rollie, but here he’s just “Roll.” Josephine stands beside him, and in the middle, Frank Seyk, Maud’s husband. I don’t know who the guy on the right is. The little boy sitting on the ground between Josephine and Frank is my grandfather, Frederic Bach.

sepia | 6:39 am CST
Category: story time
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Sunday, August 21st, 2011

I may have just driven to Waupaca County for the last time. Mom sold the ancestral manse and bought a condo in Arkansas where she hopes to live the rest of her days all cozy and snug and never again hear the words “snow-covered and slippery” used to describe roads during the winter. While she was getting ready to move out of her house, boxing up the things she wanted to keep and giving away the things she didn’t, she offered me a few pieces of furniture that I happily took off her hands, and so this morning I made the drive north one last time.

I grew up in a small town in – I almost said “rural Waupaca County,” but the whole county is rural from one end to the other. When people ask me, “What’s the nearest big city?” I shrug and tell them, “Waupaca,” and wait a couple beats for the customary blank expression before trying the only other “big city,” New London. Another blank look usually follows. Manawa is an hour from Green Bay, an hour from Appleton, an hour and a half from Stevens Point and two hours from Madison. It’s as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get without being in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

Even so, Manawa wasn’t a bad place to grow up. It had everything we needed: three grocery stores, three hardware stores, a clothing store, a shoe store, two five-and-dimes, a bakery, a barber shop and several hair salons. There was even a jeweler’s. And back then, there was The Manawa Advocate, the newspaper my Dad owned and operated with the help of my Mom, two or three other full-time employees and, after a few years, me and my brother.

None of that’s left now. There’s just one grocery store in town, the only remaining hardware store is closing up shop soon, and there’s a parking lot where the Advocate building once stood. They do have a pretty nice cafe, though, that serves the most enormous omelet I’ve ever seen. Seriously. It’s at least twice the size of any omelet I’ve ever been able to finish in one sitting. Stop in at the Sun Dawg and ask for the breakfast omelet. Bring a big appetite.

The ancestral manse of the O-Folk was a twelve-hundred foot cinderblock ranch house with an attached garage. The back door was always unlocked, and stopping by for a visit always felt like coming home. T-Dawg went with me to help move the heavy stuff, and when we got there he just opened the door and walked in. Mom was waiting in the kitchen to welcome us.

She had most of her stuff boxed up by the time we got there. The only things that were still out were what she needed to eat and do her daily housekeeping, and her furniture, half of which we were going to load up and haul away. We didn’t plan on hauling nearly half of it away, that just turned out to be the case. I was supposed to take away a cedar chest, a rocking chair, a chest of drawers and a small end table, but I also ended up with four chairs and a small bench-like table that Mom tried to talk T into taking from her. When he told her he didn’t have the room for it she said she’d just leave it out by the curb with the chairs. “You’re going to give that away?” I asked her, shocked. “I’ll take it off your hands!”

When I drove away, the van was packed tightly with furniture, almost as if it was made to haul away exactly what Mom needed to get rid of. She gave us a proper Wisconsin send-off, hugging us good-bye in the kitchen, seeing us out the door, then standing in the driveway to wave as we pulled away.

so long | 6:36 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, Mom, O'Folks, story time, T-Dawg
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Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

bach_001

I got this snapshot from one of the Great Big Photo Albums of People Related to Me but, unlike most of the other photo albums, this one was chock full of familiar faces.

In this photo, weighing all of 98 pounds and swinging a solid-steel iron like nobody’s business, Cleo Mary Melchoir, who had this very day taken the name Bach and seemed to be getting into the spirit of the whole marriage thing without any trouble.

On the right, attempting to defend himself with a cast-iron wok and realizing with a grin how futile it was, Frederic Charles Bach.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet my grandmother and grandfather, newly married on this day, August 26, 1935.

swingin’ | 10:06 pm CST
Category: Grandparents, O'Folks, story time
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Thursday, August 11th, 2011

family_1017

Like the rest of the photos in the Great Big Photo Album of People Who Might Be Related To Me But I Don’t Know How, this one isn’t dated and there are no names or notes scribbled on the back. Still, I might actually know what’s going on here.

My mother had an aunt everybody called Lulu. She was married to the coal king of Green Bay, Frank Hurlbut. Several of the photos in the album are scenes from the coal docks in Green Bay. The guys in this picture are going into a coal mine. So, I have the sneaking suspicion that at least some of these guys could be employees of the Hurlbut coal company. One of the men in those coal cars might even be Frank Hurlbut. But that’s just an idea.

mine | 7:05 am CST
Category: story time | Tags: ,
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Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, considering the inevitability of life:

If you had asked your chemistry teacher fifty years ago, once you looked at that mysterious chart of boxes that sat in front of your class, the periodic table of elements, Where did those elements come from? The chemistry teacher would not have had an answer for you. He would have said, Well, you dig them from out of the earth. That’s not where they come from. It took modern astrophysics to determine the origin of the chemical elements.

We observe stars. They explode, laying bare their contents. And what we have discovered is that the elements of the periodic table derive from the actions of stars that have manufactured the elements, exploded, and scattered their enriched guts across the galaxy, contaminating – or enriching – gas clouds that then form a next generation of stars populated by planets, and possibly life.

When you look at the ingredients of the universe, the number one ingredient is hydrogen. Next is helium, next is oxygen, carbon, nitrogen. Those are the top ingredients in the universe. Then you look at earth, because we like to think of ourselves as special … We say, We’re special! Well, what are we made of? What’s the number one molecule in our bodies? Water! What’s water made of? H-two-O. Hydrogen and oxygen.

Hmmm.

If you rank the elements in the human body, with the exception of helium, which is chemically inert, useless to you for any reason other than just to inhale it so you sound like Micky Mouse … number one is hydrogen. Matches the universe. Number two: oxygen. Matches the universe. Number three? Carbon! Matches the universe. Number four, nitrogen – matches the universe!

We learned in the last fifty years that, not only do we exist in this universe, it is the universe itself that exists within us. Had we been made of some rare isotope of bismuth, you would have an argument to say, We are something special! There are people who are upset by that fact, saying, Well, does that mean we are not special? Well, I think it’s special in another kind of way. When you look up at the night sky it’s no longer, we’re here, and that’s there. It’s, We are part of that! That association, for me, is quite enlightening and ennobling and enriching. In fact, it’s almost spiritual, looking up at the night sky and finding a sense of belonging.

So, now we have ourselves – are we alone in the universe? We’re made of the most common ingredients there are! Our chemistry is based on carbon! Carbon is the most chemically active ingredient in the periodic table! If you were to find a chemistry on which to base something really complex, called life, you would base it on carbon! Carbon is, like, the fourth most abundant ingredient in the universe! We’re not rare! You can make more molecules out of carbon than you can out of all the other ingredients in the periodic table combined. If we were to ask ourselves, Are we alone in the universe? It would be inexcusably egocentric to suggest that we are alone in the cosmos. The chemistry is too rich to declare that! The universe, too vast! There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. There are more stars in the universe than there are all sounds and words ever uttered by all the humans who have ever lived. To say we’re alone in the universe!

No, we haven’t found life outside of earth yet. We’re looking. Haven’t looked very far yet. Galaxy’s this big – we’ve looked about that far, but we’re looking. And how about life on earth? Is it hard to form? Just because we don’t know how to do it in the lab doesn’t mean nature had problems. So it may be, given that information, that, given the right ingredients, which are everywhere, life may be inevitable – an inevitable consequence of complex chemistry.

inevitable | 3:13 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, daily drivel, story time | Tags: ,
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Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

On my emergency trip across the Atlantic during the Thanksgiving weekend I’d had to suffer two broken ATMs to make sure I had no money in my pocket, a lack of places to eat in O’Hare airport except for a tavern serving cold sandwiches, a seat with no floor space next to a guy who liked to talk with his elbows (and it was a pretty boring conversation; all he could say was, “Back off!”); a minor malfunction of the airplane’s control systems requiring a special procedure that was in no way an emergency even though the flight controllers at Heathrow cleared all the other planes from our flight path and reserved an entire runway for us to set down on, and finally an uncomfortable moment at the customs gate as I tried to explain why I had left the country and was trying to get back in without proper leave papers.

But all that was over. At long last, I was back. There was no more welcome sight I could imagine than My Darling B’s glowing face at the baggage claim. After all the weirdness I’d been through, I didn’t even care if my bags showed up on the carousel or not. B greeted me with hugs and kisses and other happiness, then listened as I told her about the non-emergency that delayed our flight while we waited for my suitcases to be vomited up by the stainless steel baggage mangler. We scooped them up the moment they appeared and bolted for the door. The claim area was surprisingly close to the parking garage and B had even managed to snag a spot on the bottom floor. And luckily for me, she agreed to take the wheel for the first leg of the drive out from London. My brains were still woolly from jet lag and sleep deprivation. I never could manage to sleep on a plane, only jerk and snort through periodic dozing that’s a lot of fun to watch when other people do it, but agony when it’s happening to me.

Dusk was falling as we left Heathrow but the airport, urban London and the six-lane M25 motorway were all brightly lit by a tall picket line of sodium lights bathing everything on the road in sepia tones. We turned off the M25 to the M1 and followed it north until we hooked up with the A1, also a well-lit highway. It probably wasn’t until we were in the neighborhood of Alconbury, were we knew the back roads well enough to make a few short cuts along country roads, that I noticed how difficult it became to see the road when B dimmed the headlights.

“Does it look to you as if one of the headlights could be burned out?” I tentatively asked B.

She flicked the lights from bright to dim a couple times. The high beams were fine, but when she switched back and forth it became obvious that the low beam on the driver’s side was out. That whole side of the road disappeared from view each time she flicked the switch.

“How about that?” B said, not at all as amazed as I was that another mechanical gremlin was messing around with me. “It worked fine yesterday.”

And the little bugger was just getting started. As B steered the car through a roundabout, she ran over something in the road. The sharp turn around the island, together with the blind spot she had to deal with while she used the low beam through the busy intersection, made it impossible for her to see whatever the piece of discarded junk was until she was almost on top of it, way too late to avoid it. She swerved in the hopes of maybe straddling it, but a telltale bump-clunk under the car announced she hadn’t quite managed a clean miss.

Right after that, our engine exploded, or sounded like it, anyway. If you’ve never heard a car that’s lost its muffler, that’s exactly what it sounds like. My Darling B looked at me with terror in her eyes. I looked right back at her with “I can’t believe this is happening to me” in my eyes. The roar was so deafening that I leaned over to make sure B would hear me when I shouted, “We lost the muffler!”

“Should we stop?” she shouted back.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” I answered. “Keep on going!” She didn’t appear to be very happy with that answer, but there really wasn’t anything we could do about it. There was no chance we would find a garage anywhere along our route that would be open at such a late hour, and I would never have dreamed of attempting a roadside repair, which would have required lying on my back in the gravel while trying to fit together the hot exhaust pipes by touch as cars and trucks roared past us on the highway. The only thing to do was grin and bear it, which wasn’t too difficult for me at that point. All I wanted was to get home, pop open a beer, slouch back in a chair and flip the bird at the angry gods when this trip was finally over. No way the gods were going to let me off that easy.

On a stretch of back road that was just a half-hour’s drive from our house we came to a full stop behind a queue of three or four cars waiting at a signal light. Just beyond the light the opposite lane ended and an impressively deep trench took its place, snaking out of sight around a sharp corner. Road crews often dug up stretches of country roads this way and, when they knocked off at the end of the day, they left automatic signal lights standing sentinel over the yawning holes. The light would change in a few minutes and we’d be on our way.

B glanced into her rear-view mirror as a car slowed to a stop behind us, and again as the headlights of the next approaching car appeared in the distance. She didn’t look away from him, though, because he didn’t slow down at all until he was way too close to stop safely. I missed all of this, of course, and she had no time to warn me except to say, “Oh, shit,” as she fumbled for the gearshift.

I perked up. “What?”

She turned around just in time to see the oncoming car swerve into the open lane, the one that was dug up, trying to avoid the line of cars we were in. When he saw the yawning hole ahead of him he swerved back again, and somehow he missed us. The car that had stopped in line behind us left just enough room for his car to slip between our bumpers and, against all odds, he did exactly that. Not only did he manage to not hit us, his car didn’t even give our car a peck on the cheek as it went by, and to make it even more jaw-droppingly amazing, he even missed the car behind us. If you had seen it in a movie, you wouldn’t have believed it.

After making sure that Barb was all right I jumped out to see if I could help. So did almost everybody else waiting in line, and we all stared open-mouthed along the side of the road as the driver climbed out through the window of his overturned car, stood beside it for a moment with his hands on his hips, and looked over the situation wearing an expression that said, “Well, dammit! Now how am I going to get home?” Then he dug his cell phone out of his pocket, dialed a number, and held the phone to his ear as he climbed up the side of the ditch to get to the road.

Our small crowd gathered around, repeatedly asking if he he was okay and watching him to see if he would collapse in a heap, felled by an aortic aneurysm or, at the very lease, nervous exhaustion. He seemed a little shaken but there wasn’t a cut or bruise visible anywhere on him. In between dialing numbers on his cell phone he kept assuring us he was all right, and eventually the crowd broke up and drifted away when it became apparent he wasn’t going to topple over and die.

His cell phone appeared to be giving him quite a bit of trouble, though. “The battery’s going,” he said to no one in particular, sounding a bit lost.

B had joined us in the road by this time. “Here, use mine,” she said, digging her phone out of her purse.

“It’s a long-distance call,” he apologized.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, then turned and held the car keys out to me. She was looking a lot more shaken than he was. “Would you mind driving home from here?” she asked.

We waited by the side of the road for the driver’s friend to pick him up, making small talk as he chain-smoked. When his friend arrived he thanked us again for the use of our cell phone, then we climbed into our respective cars and drove off, his friend’s car purring quietly, ours rumbling like a dragster. We were less than a thirty-minute drive from home at that point and there was no chance I would fall asleep. I wasn’t even worried about jinxing myself by saying that aloud. At that point, so many other shoes had been dropped that the most outrageous thing I could think of that could have happened to us was, we would get home without another incident. And as crazy as it sounds, that’s just what happened.

heading home #3 | 2:15 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, My Darling B, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, travel, work | Tags:
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Saturday, May 21st, 2011

A transatlantic flight in coach class has to be one of the most miserable ways to travel even under the best of circumstances. I count myself as damn lucky when I can wangle a seat on the aisle so I can hang over the edge a little bit to get some breathing room, and the few times I’ve been given the option of a seat at the very front of the coach section where my knees weren’t pressed against the back of a seat in front of mine, I’ve been as close to happy as I could ever hope to be on a commercial airliner.

But on this particular flight I didn’t find myself in either of those circumstances. I was stuck in the tail of the plane with Mister Pushy McElbows in the aisle seat making sure I stayed plastered up against the inner wall of the fuselage, which curved far enough into the cabin that it ate up most of the floor space under my seat, forcing me to sit crosslegged like a pretzel for twelve hours. I wouldn’t claim it was the very worst of circumstances – certainly somebody out there can come up with a story of a trip that was worse – but I will go so far as to claim that, when the engines began to wind down and my ears clogged up, signaling our descent as we crossed over the coast of the United Kingdom, I heaved a sigh of relief strong enough to muss the hair of people sitting in the first row.

Then the public address system switched on with a hollow pop and the captain made his “Welcome to England” announcement, with a few added comments that made my relief so short-lived it was over before I could finish that sigh.

“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please, ” he said. “As we begin our descent over the Welsh countryside, I’d like to take ten minutes of your time to inform you of a few special procedures we’ll be using for today’s landing at Heathrow.”

Special procedures? Yes, do go on, please.

“But before I say any more, I want you to know that we are not using these special procedures because of a state of emergency,” he continued, very casually, no emphasis at all on any word. It was almost as if he meant to imply that what he wanted to tell us was all in the way of making time-filling conversation, the way he would if he were pointing out a landmark we happened to be passing: “And if you can look out the left side of the plane you’ll see the Tower Bridge,” or somesuch. Instead, he was talking about special procedures and how they very definitely did not have anything to do with an emergency, or were unusual in any way at all, even though the fact that he even mentioned them was really pretty unusual.

“Shortly after we departed Chicago,” he went on, slowly, casually, “we detected a leak in one of the hydraulic systems. After an exhaustive analysis of the situation we were able to determine that, because the loss of fluid didn’t affect our ability to control plane, we could safely continue our journey.”

Oh. We sprang a leak. In the hydraulic system. But it was a small leak. So tiny that the flight crew, all experienced professionals with thousands of hours of flying time between them, and keenly aware that the lives of three hundred passengers were in their hands, found after reviewing the data that the leak was so insignificant as to make turning back unnecessary. Surely that’s what the captain was saying.

“The leak occurred in the hydraulic system that raises and lowers the main landing gear,” he went on, “and even though all the hydraulic fluid has been drained from the system, we will still be able to extend our landing gear by simply opening the doors that hold them in. The wheels will drop out under their own weight, and we’ll make sure they’re locked into place by rocking the wings just a bit. I’ll try to keep it to a gentle roll.”

Wait – all the hydraulic fluid leaked out? All of it? And the work-around for a jet that pees away all its hydraulic fluid is to let the landing gear fall out of the fuselage and trust that everything will get stuck in the down position? That works? Really?

But wait! There’s more! “The affected hydraulic system is also used to extend the flaps,” the captain went on, “but each one of them has an electric motor, to be used in situations just like this. The electric motors can only extend the flaps, though. After we put them down, we’ll be committed to making a landing because we can’t fly a circle around the airport with the flaps extended. So, to make sure we can land on the very first try, the flight controllers at Heathrow have closed a runway to every approaching plane but ours, and they’ve cleared all traffic from the air corridor we’re going to use on our approach to land.”

Like getting a pass to use the HOV lane on the highway through Chicago, we would have nobody in our way until we got to Heathrow! The pilot would take us straight in and ease us down to a smooth landing. It was almost enough to convince me that, for a no-fuss landing, losing all the hydraulic fluid was the best thing that could have happened to us.

There was just one more thing:

“The loss of this hydraulic system also affected our ability to steer the nose wheel and apply the brakes. After we touch down, we’ll keep on rolling straight ahead until we lose all our momentum and come to a stop, probably somewhere near the end of the runway. It’s miles long, so we’re in no danger of running off the end. A tug will be waiting there to tow us to the terminal.”

This far down the laundry list of broken things on our jumbo jet, adding “no steering” and “no brakes” didn’t make enough of a difference to worry me much.

The wheels came down with the usual bump-clunk and, just as he promised, the pilot did a slow, lazy wing-waggle, rolling the plane first to one side, then to the other. He must have been satisfied that the wheels were locked in place because he flew rock steady and straight as an arrow for miles and miles after that. There was no turbulence that I remember. I could hardly tell we were descending until the flaps whined down into place, causing the plane to nose over a bit.

Touchdown was smooth as silk. The plane’s wheels kissed the concrete so gently and with the tiniest of squeeks that I wasn’t sure when it had happened or even that we were on the ground until the rumble of the tires along the runway confirmed it. And, even after the thrust reversers kicked in, the plane didn’t go through the usual buck and weave it would have if he’d been able to jam on the brakes because, hey, no brakes!

After a long roll-out we came to a gentle stop near the end of the runway, where we added one more glitch to our list: The tug waiting for us had the wrong kind of hitch to pull our particular model 747. We had to hang out there for half an hour or so while a replacement tug was called up and it raced out to drag us off the runway. By that time it was too late to take our plane to its assigned gate. We’d lost our turn and had to be towed to a parking spot far off in a corner of the airfield where we were transferred to buses that converged on our plane to ferry us to the terminal.

They were the kind of buses that rose up on stilts and kissed the door of the plane so we could walk aboard. Each one was standing room only; there were no seats, only those floor-to-ceiling stainless steel poles you find on subway trains. I thought it would be a fairly short trip to the terminal – I could see it out the window – and yet somehow the ride went on forever. Honestly, I can’t remember that I’ve ever been on a bus ride between two places I could always see that lasted so long. And it wasn’t like the driver was taking his time, either. As he ducked through one darkened tunnel after another, arched over bridges and jackknifed around hairpin corners, he seemed to be living a roller-coaster fantasy. When we finally made it to the terminal I noticed I wasn’t the only one in hurry to get out the doors as soon as they opened.

We stepped off the bus into a high-ceilinged waiting area roughly as big as an elementary school gym. A row of chest-high desks, each with a uniformed customs official standing behind it, made a barrier along the far wall between me and the exit. Behind me, passengers were arriving in waves as one bus after another came to the door. And somewhere in Heathrow airport my darling wife was waiting for me – and had been waiting for hours longer than she expected to be.

I could only guess that she had been watching the arrivals board the whole time, only to see my arrival time delayed again and again, but I would have laid odds she would not have known anything about the reasons for my delay. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing they would announce to the crowds waiting to get aboard their long-distance flights. So she would have been sitting there, waiting, checking, sitting some more, checking again, waiting still longer, and on and on ad nauseum. There is no way to sit in an airport doing nothing for hours without getting tired, then desperately bored and finally cranky enough to want to kill somebody. And I would likely be the first person she spoke to.

It seemed vitally important that I call her right away to tell her what happened, to let her know I was off the plane and headed her way, and to arrange for a place to meet. As soon as I stepped off the bus into the customs area I headed straight for a payphone, dialed her number, then stood there counting the people who got off each bus as they came to the door. And holy cheese, there were a lot of people getting off thoses buses! How many people were on that plane, anyway?

Thankfully, she answered my call after just a couple rings. “Where are you?” she asked as soon as I said hi.

“Customs,” I told her, and gave her the short version of the leak and the landing and the wait and the roller coaster ride. “I’ve got to get in line before another bus pulls up,” I warned her, watching the stream of passengers queueing up to have their passports inspected and stamped. After we arranged a place to meet and a hurried good-bye, I sprinted away from the payphone to begin the hour-long snake-dance through the maze of ropes in the center of the room until I finally stood at the front of the line for the next uniformed officer who waved at me.

“Welcome to the U.K.,” he greeted me brightly. “Passport, please?” I slipped it across the desk. “Thank you. You’re on active duty?” he asked, when he saw my military ID sticking out of the centerfold.

“That’s right,” I nodded.

“May I see a copy of your orders, please?” he asked, and I slipped him a copy of my permanent party orders, but when he saw that the date of my assignment was months ago he asked, “You’re on leave, then?”

“Emergency leave, yes.”

“May I see your leave papers?”

“I don’t actually have any leave papers,” I confessed, and quickly tap-danced my way through the tune of trying to arrange emergency leave right before a significant American holiday that most British had never heard of. He seemed to understand my predicament but was unsure what do do about my lack of documentation and called his supervisor over so I could do my tap dance again for him, too. Then they had a short conference in hushed tones during which I tried not to look nervous at all about the fact that they still had my passport, ID and papers and I had no excuse at all for being out of the country without leave papers, other than an airman in the orderly room whose name I couldn’t remember said it would be okay. If I’d been in their shoes, I’m not sure I would have let me in, but for whatever reason they decided I was worth the risk, stamped my passport and sent me on my way.

heading home #2 | 10:29 pm CST
Category: My Darling B, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, travel, work | Tags:
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Thursday, May 19th, 2011

The longest journey ever made in the history of humankind was a trip I took from the small town in Wisconsin where my mother lived to the small town in England where I lived with my family. It wasn’t the longest trip if it were measured in ordinary miles or hours, as most normal trips would be, but I don’t take “normal” trips and have consequently never been able to measure trips that way. For longer than I care to remember, I’ve measured trips using a Bizzare-O-Tron, a clever device of my own invention that registers every coincidence, catastrophe and just plain weird occurrence and calculates a Weirdness Rating between one and eleven. The Bizarre-O-Tron doesn’t have a zero, because that would imply I could take a trip on which nothing untoward would occur, and that simply never happens, so I didn’t even bother with zero. And the meter doesn’t stop at ten because there will, someday, be trip that will bury the needle, and I want to be ready for it. This particular trip came so very close. It could have been weirder only if Steve Martin and John Candy were in every scene.

It started with the timing: Just before the Thanksgiving Day weekend I found out my grandfather had passed away, so I calling around to see what I would have to do to take a few days’ leave to attend the funeral. I was an enlisted man in the Air Force at the time, and under normal circumstances I would report to the orderly room to see the first sergeant, who would give the thumbs-up to the commander, who would sign my leave papers and I’d be on my way. The post I was stationed at, though, was a very small unit, just ten or twelve guys maintaining some equipment out in the boonies. I had to drive an hour and a half just to visit the orderly room to get the ball rolling. This being the Thanksgiving weekend, the orderly room was virtually deserted when I got there. I found one lone airman to help process my papers, and there was no commander, or anybody with any rank at all, to sign them.

“Leave these with me,” the airman said nonchalantly, gathering up the leave forms. “I’ll get the commander to sign them as soon as he comes back, and I’ll forward a copy to you.”

That right there bumped the Bizarre-O-Tron up a notch, which was a faulty reading, now that I think about it. Coiled, robotic arms should have come shooting out both sides and an alarmed voice shouting, “Warning! Warning” was supposed to make me back away and think long and hard about the trapdoor I was about to fall through, but I wasn’t hit by the full impact of this weirdness until later. I guess I was in too much of a hurry. Instead, I only asked, “How am I supposed to travel without leave papers?”

“Just show them your ID when you get back,” he said. “As long as you’re permanent party there’ll be no problem.”

He meant that, because I was stationed in the U.K. the customs agent would let me just waltz in and out of the country by showing him my military ID card, and for some reason I bought that, even though I’d never done it that way before. It seems like such an obvious red flag now, but as I said, I was in a hurry and there was still a lot I had to do.

The trip to the States was mostly benign, probably because of the Thanksgiving weekend rush. My Darling B drove me to Heathrow where I boarded a jumbo jet for a transatlanic flight that went by in a blur. Everybody from the ground up worked feverishly to get passengers through the gate, loaded on to the plane, unloaded and back out the gate. Time passed in the usual mind-numbing way.

The details of the trip back, though – those are burned into my memory forever. For starters, by the time I got through security and into the terminal it was way past supper time and my stomach was growling. With a few hours to go before my flight started boarding, I figured I’d grab a bite in one of the many restaurants in the terminal, but first I had to find an ATM so I could reload my wallet with a few twenties. The first machine I found was broken; probably still reeling from the assault of hundreds of holiday travelers. No problem, I was in O’Hare airport, the largest, sprawlingest airport in the midwest. I should be able to find another machine in no time, right? But no. No matter how many times I walked the length of the terminal, I could find only one other ATM, and it was out of cash. Two machines in a terminal big enough to be its own country. Who thought that was a good idea?

By scrounging through every pocket in my jacket and carry-on bag, I managed to put together just enough loose change to buy a sandwich at one of the few taverns still open. That was another peg up on the Bizzarre-O-Tron. On the one holiday that’s legendary for the huge number of travelers jetting from Atlantic to Pacific and back, in an airport terminal where most of those travelers will find themselves waiting for many, many hours for a connecting flight, there were no restaurants open for dinner, just a couple taverns serving hot sandwiches and other bar food. I guess all the waiters went home for Thanksgiving, too.

My flight went non-stop from Chicago to London Heathrow, a leg that typically lasts a numbingly long twelve hours, so I usually try to snag an aisle seat or, better yet, a place by the bulkhead where I can stretch my legs. No such luck on this trip, though. I got herded so far back into the tail of the plane that the seat they shoehorned me into didn’t have a floor under it. The inner wall of the fuselage curled in under my feet. Honestly. There was just enough room for me to plant my right foot flat on a sliver of level carpeting, but my left foot had to either ride on the curve of the wall, or I could cross it over my knee. Or, I guess, I could have asked the steward to lend me a steak knife from the galley, sawed my left leg off, and stuffed it into the overhead bin. Would’ve been about as comfortable as the other two options.

But the crazy geometry of the seating arrangement became even more awkward when Mister Passive-Aggressive plunked himself in the aisle seat next to me. If you’ve ever flown coach, or ridden a Greyhound bus, you’ve sat beside this guy. Before we even pulled back from the gate he staked his claim on what he thought was his personal space by digging an issue of the Wall Street Journal out of his bag and holding it wide open in front of him, elbows out. There was no doubt in my mind that he stopped at a newsstand in the terminal just before he boarded the plane just so he could buy the biggest newspaper in the pile for this very purpose.

Supper time was more of the same: Fork in one hand, knife in the other, elbows out. When he started sawing pieces off his beef cutlet his arms flapped like a Canadian goose trying to get enough lift for takeoff. And when he wasn’t eating or reading, he had his laptop out and was pounding on the keys with the ferocity of a blacksmith forging a weapon of war. The only notice he took of me from the beginning to the end of the flight was to mutter “Excuse me” each time his elbow jabbed me in the ribs to remind me he was still there.

To this day, that one leg of the trip ranks as the longest transatlantic flight of my life.

heading home #1 | 8:37 am CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, story time, travel, work | Tags:
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